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Bard stripped bare

What’s On In London, 1st July 1992, Sam Willetts

“We could have called ourselves Upthrust or Downput or some such thing,” says Michael Pennington. “We also considered calling ourselves the National Shakespeare Company, until our legal advisors told us that might bring complications. I rather wish we had, but then what’s in a name?” They christened themselves the English Shakespeare Company, and their joint artistic director’s track record entitles him to say things like “what’s in a name?” In the few years since Michaels Pennington and Bogdanov founded it, the English Shakespeare Company has picked up important theatrical awards and prizes at an average rate of just under four per annum. Some of these accrued from the 1987’s ‘The Wars of the Roses’, which brought the whole cycle of Shakespeare’s histories to the stage for the first time in 20 years. As a veteran of both the RSC and the National Theatre Company, Pennington is also entitled to call ‘Macbeth’ (so help me) “the Scottish play”, a right he exercises without a blush. The ESC been touring its acclaimed productions of ‘Macbeth’ – with Pennington as the same – and ‘Twelfth Night’ since last year. Both productions come to the neon-free groves of Richmond on the first two weeks in July.

“Some people seem surprised that we’re not going into the West End. We’ve had residences at the Old Vic and the Lyric Hammersmith, which was a bit small for what we wanted to do. The West End is rather a melancholy place at the moment, and I don’t think I’d want to be there until there’s more confidence around. Richmond is an interesting change for us, and we like to pick and choose, to find new places.”

Combining large-scale spectacle with a high degree of mobility was a priority for the ESC’s founders. “It was really very simple”, says Pennington. “In  1985 there was a conspicuous lack of big-scale Shakespeare that could really tour, productions that could visit what’s known as the Number One circuit of 1,000-plus seaters. That seemed all wrong. The local repertory movement was also collapsing with people unable to afford the big casts. One of the national companies might go to Newcastle for a short time, but that didn’t change what looked like a process of metropolitanisation.”

Pennington and Bogdanov’s response was to design a company able to out-manoeuvre the venerable behemoths of London and Stratford. At the same time they fostered a theatrical policy of stripped-down, unfussy performance. “It’s really about stripping a lot of the old paint off. There’s a sort of paradox, that for all its immense scope and richness, Shakespeare’s language is actually very democratic. It was aimed at an audience containing lovers, tailors, tinkers, all kinds of people. It has an immediacy which people always hanker after recapturing, and that’s what we set out to do.” Anyone auditioning for the company should bear in mind Pennington’s own watchword of “avoiding the fustian. When you say a line like ‘Is this a dagger I see before me?’, you don’t resort to the Victorian rhetorical devices actors often fall back on. You try to do it so that people will look over their shoulders to see if there is a dagger hanging there.”

Helicopters clatter in ‘Macbeth’s’ battle scenes, Pennington’s directorial debut is a modern-dress ‘Twelfth Night’, but the ESC takes care to avoid gratuitous anachronism. “Modern dress is valuable if you use it carefully. If you see a man wearing a ruff and a doublet who also happens to have yellow cross-garters, it’s not going to have it original impact. If you have a man in sober politicians pinstripes, which a modern Malvolio might wear, and he’s wearing yellow garters with his trousers rolled up, you get the sense of absurdity much more vividly.” Pennington preaches similar caution in treating Shakespeare’s politics, and is wary of milking the plays for more latter-day relevance than they can comfortably yield. “You might instinctively look for politics, but ‘Macbeth’, for instance, is mostly a psychological thriller.” At the time of writing, the actor is wielding his dagger in the Scottish Plays homeland.

“It was always going to be interesting to do it in Scotland. It’s intriguing to see how it deals with the Anglicisation of Scotland, especially at this point in the country’s political history. It’s what you’d expect, with Shakespeare writing loyalty in the reign of James I of England and VI of Scotland. But I would always avoid indulging resonances like that, however opportune, at the expense of characterisation.” The ESC’s planned production of ‘Troilus and Cressida’ presents no such dangerous temptation, says Pennington. “It’s just permanently topical – a remarkable love-story ser in a war-story. It asks a question of whether we can survive as decent people against a background of war.”

All of the ESC’s policies point to a single end: more than one critic has welcomed the great diversity of age and background to be found in the company’s audiences. “We want to make it as accessible as possible above all. It’s no good if three-quarters of the public can’t afford to come and see it. There isn’t an awful lot we can do about prices, but we do what we can.” The company’s educational arm extends from British schools and colleges to “lakeside settlements in Africa”, the venue fro a recent ‘Land rover tour’. “It’s a fantastic feeling when you overhear a group of school kids have a heated argument after a performance, and you realise they’re arguing over the legitimacy of Hotspur’s claim to the throne. That’s a real reward.”

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