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Former spear carrier … still makes his points

Coventry Evening Telegraph ’76 Extra

Like Trevor Nunn and Robin Ellis, Michael Pennington came to the Royal Shakespeare Company via East Anglia and Cambridge.

His father was a lawyer, but Michael thought from the age of about 11 or 12 that he was going to be an actor and a spell with the National Youth theatre convinced him irrevocably of the fact.

“Michael Croft was still director and it was a really sparky atmosphere,” he says. “And Cambridge was going through a good spell in those days – about five or six years in the mid-Sixties when there were people like Trevor Nunn, Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellan around.

“At the National Youth theatre we tackled things in a very intensive sort of way. At 18 I was mixing with people who’d never set foot on a stage before and with people who had just graduated from drama school.

“Then there was Cambridge … reading English between times. Hustling and ambitious we were.”

He joined the RSC for the first time after leaving university in 1964 … “to do this,” he says … extending an arm and cupping his have round an imaginary spear. “It was a false start in a way.”

He played juvenile leads in Rep and then did what he describes as “a stretch” on TV for about three years. “I played every anti-hero who cropped up on television at that time.”

He’s packed a good deal into his 32 years including that famous production of ‘Hamlet’ with Nicol Williamson. He remembers Williamson’s energy and how the production grew and grew and grew … with plans to film it, to take it to New York.

But then the situation began to change. “For a couple of years I was doing things in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he says.

“When I did things I was pleased when only about 40 or 50 people saw them.”

He began to realise the need to reach larger numbers of people – a theory which was reinforced when he appeared with Paul Scofield in Christopher Hampton’s ‘Savages.’

“It’s no good preaching to the converted for three weeks,” he says. “At the Royal Court you were sure of a liberated audience. In the West end context people felt attacked by the play.”

He spent a strange year with the RSC in 1974, a split season which lacked cohesion. His own performance was one of the factors which relieved the agony for many of us of that season’s ‘Measure for Measure.’

But he felt the production was maltreated by the critics. “We were doing things which had never been done on the Stratford stage before,” he said, “and some nights it worked marvellously well.”

He believes that it is essential “to learn the lessons of The Other Place” … especially the contact that exists between the actor and the audience. And he believes that it is possible to carry some of that across to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

He’s returned to the RSC this year to play Mercutio in ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ Hector in ‘Troilus and Cressida’ and Edgar in ‘King Lear.’

“I do feel,” he says, “that I am at a point where I am ready for fresh challenges such as the Shakespeare repertoire offers. I think the RSC is still an ideal platform on which to do these things.

“I think I’ve become a more thoughtful actor. Everything that happens to me in my life I am able to use in performance. But that’s not to say I’m living my life entirely for acting.”  

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