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Way of the actor

The Guardian, 27th January 1978

Hard on the heels of the National Theatre’s bawdy ‘Country Wife’ – and you can be very hard on Restoration heels which were blocked high and gaily coloured – comes the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new ‘Way of the World’ by Congreve at the Aldwych (press night tonight and running till the end of March). The RSC’s Mirabell is Michael Pennington, last year’s admired Mercutio, who hinted at John Barton’s angle on Congreve when he said that the audience needed to remember the society for which Congreve was writing – vicious, divided and dirt-ridden. “They used to empty their slops in the middle of the street.”

It would be surprising if the RSC were out to overturn the new orthodoxy about Restoration comedy established by William Gaskill’s ‘realistic’ ‘Recruiting Officer’ which got away from ruffles, swishy dialogue and pirouettes in favour of showing the pockmarks beneath the patches. But the predictably trendy sociological approach has not entirely dominated Barton’s thinking. Pennington says: “Although a realistic approach and Stanislavskyan approach to the text is in no way excluded because it’s Restoration comedy, when you look at our costumes there’s no getting away from the kind of glamorous style, bright colours and all, that we associate with the period.”

It will be Pennington’s first Restoration play (although the word Restoration seems rather approximate for a play written in 1700) and he is very conscious of the work’s status as “a famous language play full of lines you recognise.” The hardest thing in rehearsals has been getting the plot, which seems inexplicably complicated, clear. “But it’s hard to say what I think about the play as a whole because just now I’m more interested in getting the dance right.”

Pennington, who is 34, joined the RSC much the same time as Ian McKellan to play Angelo in ‘Measure for Measure’ – a profoundly unpopular production by Keith Hack. Then he spent a year touring ‘The Hollow Crown’ around the world on what he calls a long leash. Like McKellan he was at Cambridge – read English at Trinity from 1961 to 1964. Like McKellan he never went to drama school, but used Cambridge as a springboard into the professional theatre, in the same way as he had used Michael Croft’s National Youth Theatre as a springboard to university theatre. He says: “I’ve stopped debating whether it would have been better to go to drama school or do the university thing. Cambridge meant doing 30 plays in three years all before an audience, which I certainly wouldn’t have got at drama school.”

After Cambridge, and a well-reviewed Hamlet, he was taken off by Peter Hall for a season at Stratford where he carried a spear and played Fortinbras and Berowne in ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost.’ Then followed a steady nine years in and out if television with a larding of West End roles in plays like John Mortimer’s ‘The Judge.’ “I never did any rep – apart from a single play, ‘The Promise, at Sheffield. No, I’ve never done that particular part of what you’re suppose to do to become a good actor.” And he has never starved, barely ever been out of work, so for him at least the RSC is not a safe harbour after stormy waters.

Pennington does not regard himself as particularly tied to the RSC. He says: “I’ve always regarded myself as a freelance or eclectic actor who liked working for cameras almost as much as for an audience. The odd thing about the RSC in its present very successful phase is that you can do almost anything without leaving the company. You can even do a little telly if you’re lucky. But I’m heretical about permanent companies. I would hate the idea of working with the same group of people for more than five years. I love to work with different directors, different actors. It’s true that the worst thing that could happen to me would be not be able to work. But I have a sort of super optimism about that. As for this particular company, I feel the point of break-up may not be very far away. We are all familiar, well-known to each other now. It may be time to stop, maybe in a year, soonish anyway.”

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