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The English Shakespeare Company:

The Story of The Wars of the Roses 1986-1989


Stage and Television Today, 20th September 1990, Marianne Brace talks to the ESC’s two Michaels who have just completed their ‘warts and all’ account of how the company came into being.


Grumpiness was what prompted actor Michael Pennington and Director Michael Bogdanov to found the English Shakespeare Company five years ago. Disenchanted with, respectively, the RSC and the National Theatre, they took their ‘Wars of the Roses’ from Cardiff to Canberra between 1986 and 1989.


This cycle of Henrys and Richards have never been toured before. The company notched up 649 performances and 18 award nominations. Bogdanov won the Best Director and John Woodvine, playing Falstaff, the Best Actor. During the marathon tempers flared, nerves cracked and there were almost as many scenes offstage as on. There were tragedies too. Actors John Price and Clyde Pollitt died; Colin Farrell’s daughter was killed in a road accident. But the show still went on. And on. Now their trials and tribulations have been chronicled in a book written by the two Michaels, published this month by Nick Hern.


According to Pennington, he and Bogdanov felt “there ought to be a written account from the inside of what we reckoned to be a rather extraordinary adventure.” It comes “warts and all”. Both wanted to avoid a “bland account of backstage anecdotes in which everybody ending up loving each other. There is an element of that – the spirit of the company is still very striking. But we wanted the rough edges and disagreements too.”


At times you sense their own incredulity: was Ed Mirvish really going to back them? Could they seriously add another four plays to their existing three-play repertoire? Did that ASM actually appear clad only in boxer shorts decorated with copulating rabbits before a stunned Canadian audience?


The authors haven’t cast themselves as heroes of the piece. But even though they have tried to “protect” some people (“there are professional reputations to be respected”) others may learn rather mortifyingly that they weren’t much good at their jobs. Such honesty smacks of brutality. “I’m sorry you felt that, because we agonised over it a lot.” And, Pennington adds, should readers conclude he and Bogdanov “are a pair of heels, not visionaries, and are particularly vengeful towards the people that went out to do the shows – well, that’s fair comment as well.”


Vengeful? Maybe not, but there’s a hint of teasing and testiness. Take the initial dedication addressed to, among others, the many who amused and maddened them: the agent who felt that her client Ann Bell ‘was a little too young for Falstaff’; the former Head of Dance and Drama at the British Council “whose unfailing rudeness and condescension in the early days spurred us on to ever-greater efforts.” Here too is the odd jokey flick at omniscient theatre critics who muddle their Mahler with their Samuel Barber.


Writing the book posed problems of its own. Pennington, a Cambridge graduate, “never regarded myself as a writer.” He’s modest about his ability although his contribution (both Michaels wrote separate narratives which have been wedded together) is highly readable. While touring Pennington didn’t keep a diary. “The one thing I couldn’t do at the time was stay awake a moment longer after I’d gone to bed.” Partly because of this the Michaels decided to solicit everyone’s reminiscences and get a broad picture. But there wasn’t much response. When people are touring, “doing nine performances in a week, sometimes seven in a weekend, they don’t really want to spend their spare time writing about it.”


Keen that it shouldn’t end up “a one-sided story,” Pennington rang up those involved in contentious episodes and nagged them to put their version down on paper. “Wounds had healed by then.” Discrepancies, however, remain. Did King Henry slap his son Hal for disrespect to his father, or was it John Castle who slapped Pennington for “sneering” at him? Readers can make up their own minds. The only thing certain was that Pennington/Hal was slapped by John Castle/King Henry on more than one occasion, and walked out.


Despite the arguments the English Shakespeare Company has inspired loyalty. “We only ever contracted people for a year at a time, so at any point people could leave. If they had done so we’d have been absolutely in the soup. We’d have had to recast and often had very little time to rehearse.” In this coming season (which sees the company divide into two, and its first departure from Shakespeare) Pennington calculates that half the actors have been with them since day one. For many young actors the English Shakespeare Company, provides after all, an opportunity to try touring, something which Pennington missed out on early in his career. “I’ve always wanted to tour. Even when I was at the RSC I felt there wasn’t enough of it. You certainly can’t be bored because you’re having to adjust week by week to a different theatre. Our set was designed like a box so that we could go into any size of theatre, just pull it down and work in it. After a year or two people became like trouble-shooters. We’d go into a theatre, see what kind it was, spend half an hour there, go away and have tea and come back and play that night. It makes you very flexible.”


In 1985 when the company was formed, the two Michaels scarcely imagined so much globetrotting would be involved. “We never thought the Arts Council would jump at the idea the way they did, or that we could gain a sponsor so quickly.” At the time, he says, “there was a real demise in touring.”  While the small-scale was catered for by companies like Cheek By Jowl, ATC and the RSC, audiences in the old Number One circuit weren’t getting to see “big expensive Shakespeare productions.” Some felt The Histories were a dodgy choice and Pennington is “pleased to think we made a profit after three years, considering that much of the repertoire consisted of ‘Henry VI’ – not what you’d call box office.” These were picked because “they are great plays of the nation, absolutely concerned with issues that convulse us today.” They also offer a “range of good parts to a lot of people.”


Pennington played Richard II, Prince Hal, Henry V, Suffolk, Cade and Buckingham. As an actor-manager he found himself in a curious position with colleagues. At one point, for instance, on the wrong end of an Equity dispute. Bogdanov “had run theatres before but I haven’t, and I’m sure I made lots of mistakes in the early days. I suppose we realised that what we were proposing was not collaborative, although the company projects ensemble teamwork on stage.” The reality is that Bogdanov and Pennington run it: “We take 98 per cent of the decisions.”


This duo is what makes the English Shakespeare Company unusual and, hopes Pennington, will help to make the story of its evolution different from other theatrical accounts. “Someone with only an average interest in the theatre might be interested in it just as a story of how to build a company with a £1 million turnover in such a short time – the reckless enterprise of the whole thing.” While the book “doesn’t offer a model for anybody,” it does make you feel that you’ve traipsed the world without leaving your armchair. Pennington writes “The touring life is … a hell of a strain, and calls forth all sorts of exceptional, and excessive behaviour, some of it quite magnificent, some of it not.” Quite so.




The Times, 3rd February 1992, Benedict Nightingale


A blow-by-blow account of the English Shakespeare Company has been written by its founders. Benedict Nightingale dips into this torrid chronicle of thespians on tour


Only ten years ago the larger sort of touring company, trucking its ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Hamlet’ from Liverpool to Newcastle one week and Newcastle to Plymouth the next, seemed to be pretty much a thing of the past. Prospect Theatre, the last of the species, had rather literally met its Waterloo in 1981. It moved to SE1, rechristened itself the Old Vic Company, and ignominiously expired, the victim of its deepening debts. Most people would have predicted that only tiny, tribal outfits – a Monstrous Regiment, a Paines Plough – would be touring by the 1990s.


Yet now the larger touring company looks very much a thing of the future. It calls itself the National Theatre, the RSC, Renaissance Theatre or the English Shakespeare Company; and it takes its ‘Richard III’ or its ‘Lear’, not just from Plymouth to Newcastle, but to Tokyo, Melbourne and Chicago, using foreign profits to help finance British work. That is particularly useful now that most of our regional reps can no longer afford permanent companies of any size or quality. For some cities the burgeoning English Shakespeare Company, in particular, is becoming the prime supplier of Shakespeare’s English.


That would have left me with mixed feelings even if I had not read Michael Bogdanov and Michael Pennington’s book about the first years of the company they created in 1986. Now I have finished their remarkably candid contribution to theatre history, my emotions are even more confused. After all, what has been the effect of Bogdanov’s determination to ‘strip away meaningless clichés’ and ‘open the plays out for new, young audiences’? What have been the results of Pennington’s belief in ‘mischief and serious verse-speaking’, ‘a not very English combination of cheek and intellect’?


The first and finest result was a seven-play cycle, ‘Richard II’ to ‘Richard III’, that brought onstage gentlemen in frock coats and skinheads brandishing obscene anti-French banners, a Falstaff in a loud, striped lounge-suit and a Gadshill with a Mohican hair-do. It was outrageous, impossible, but it fizzed and buzzed as more conventional history lessons seldom do. But last year came a ‘Merchant of Venice’ which transformed Portia into Eva Braun and the rest of Shakespeare’s more upbeat characters into anti-Semitic creeps, making nonsense of the play’s romantic pretensions. The approach that had once given the Bard a lift now sank him with hardly a trace.


Yet whatever the reservations about its work, there can only be admiration for the pluck, grit and sheer gluttony for punishment that build the ESC into the force it now is. Here, perhaps, is the chief importance of Pennington and Bogdanov’s tome. It is a case-study of an implausible success, instructively describing how to create a classical company, stay out of bankruptcy courts, and live in hotels for months on end: all without quite going mad.


Actually, mental disturbance was among the many problems that had to be faced. One company member set fire to Pennington’s dressing room. Ran away during rehearsals, and ended up shaving off his eyebrows and throwing himself off Blackfriars Bridge. A distraught stage manager opened a gala performance at the Royal Alexandra in Toronto by striding onstage wearing nothing but boxer shorts festooned with small, pink, copulating rabbits. The Canadian tour never fully recovered, which was doubly unfortunate since the Mirvishes, the Alex’s owners, had put up one-third of the £360,000 it had cost to launch the ESC.


The Arts Council never gave large sums, and at the start just £100,000; and the British Council was at first positively hostile. So the company lived from hand to mouth, unable to persuade some host theatres to offer even a modest guarantee against loss. Pennington and Bogdanov regularly dipped into their own pockets and came close to mortgaging their houses to support plans that had already caused half of their Board to resign in protest at their lack of caution. And yet late 1988 a deficit of £50,000 has become a healthy surplus.


Overseas trips – to Hong Kong, Tokyo, Chicago, Berlin – were the main explanation. Nevertheless, Pennington clearly understates when he writes that ‘the touring life is a hell of a strain’. Only 25 actors were performing the seven plays, and that meant a system of doubling and understudying of perilous complexity. What was to be done when the King of France came down with pneumonia and Exeter with a mysterious virus? How was the wretched actor understudying them both supposed to play their joint scene in ‘Henry V’?


Actors who did not know a part in the morning sometimes found themselves playing it that night. One Sunday in Connecticut, Pennington died onstage five times, in roles ranging from Jack Cade to the Earl of Rutland’s tutor. In Melbourne, Jack Carr saw so many unexpected faces in one scene that he exited, thinking he had made a wrong entrance. There, too, the only stage manager who knew every permutation turned out to be pregnant and fell ill.


Touring too its human toll in other ways, too. Often, Pennington and Bogdanov became the butt of the company’s rage, held responsible for inadequate hotels, or sausages that failed to appear at breakfast, or the half-finished Frankfurt theatre in which the cast had to perform in thermal underwear. There was even a mini-mutiny after the Earl of Cambridge farted while being arrested for treachery and Pennington, playing Henry V, lost his temper with his giggling fellow-actors, ‘I never really got popular again that year,’ he remarks.


Then there was the rehearsal in which John Castle, playing Henry IV, decided than Pennington, as Hal, was sneering at him, and slapped him violently on the face. There seems to have ensued a furious discussion about whether Pennington or Hal was responsible for the insult. Pennington sneered again, Castle struck him even harder, and Pennington walked out while Castle yelled, ‘you see you can’t take it, be a man!’ At times some actors were speaking to each other only onstage.


The ESC should not have survived, yet it did, in many ways triumphantly. There seems to have been a gypsy loyalty behind the acrimony, a spirit of adventure, a resilience and a sheer love of the work, which saw the company through. They have renewed Shakespeare by espousing old thespian values. I cannot promise not to protest when and if they transform Petruchio into Norman Mailer and Katherine into Andrew Dworkin, and set ‘The Shrew’ itself in Trump Tower; but they have already set the rest of the profession a formidable example.



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