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Rigorous romantic

The Times, 6th April 1984

Michael Pennington, after a spell of parts making cruel physical demands, is back at the National in ‘Venice Preserv’d’: interview by Peter Lewis

Michael Pennington gets the chance to employ his ruggedly romantic looks in the romantic part of Jaffeir, the reluctant revolutionary of ‘Venice Preserv’d, which opens at the National Theatre on Thursday. His last such appearance was as a memorable Hamlet at Stratford in 1980. More recently he has been portraying a haggard and the broken-down Russian horse, Strider. For both of these he transformed his appearance by ruthless physical methods, fasting to lose three stone as Raskolnikov and taking up rigorous ballet training for Tolstoy’s decrepit piebald.

‘Venice Preserv’d’ is an example of that rare genre, Restoration tragedy, honoured more by being talked of than by being seen in modern times. Its author, Thomas Otway, was accounted by Goldsmith our best ‘genius in tragedy’ after Shakespeare. Like Shakespeare in ‘Othello’, Otway provided the play with two fine leading parts for men, Jaffeir and Pierre (played here by Ian McKellan).

The play has had a chequered career. It opened to brilliant success in 1682 in the aftermath of the Popish Plot, when conspiracy theories, hysteria and witch-hunting were in the air. This topical story of a plot against the Venetian senate mirrored the murky atmosphere of shifting loyalties that Titus Oates had let loose. It was a favourite vehicle for Betterton, Garrick and Kemble and its revolutionary sentiments caused sympathetic riots in the theatre in 1795, 1809 and 1848. After that the play was virtually dropped for a hundred years, until Gielgud revived it under Peter brook’s direction in 1953.

Otway wrote the part of Belvidera for the young leading actress Elizabeth Barry, for whom he nursed an unrequited passion. She was already the mistress of the Earl of Rochester, which might have seemed enough for anyone, and ‘would hardly condescend to grant him a kiss’. “There was an element of wish-fulfilment in the part of Jaffeir for Otway”, says Michael Pennington. “He wrote very good love scenes – there’s a sort of stricken romanticism about them. He followed Mrs Barry around like a spaniel. His letters to her are pitiful to read. There is something in the play that is difficult to resist. In the midst of their political intrigue they are preoccupied with love, honour, loyalty, the concerns of the romantic sensibility.”

Pennington’s Hamlet was the culmination of many years with the Royal Shakespeare Company, which he originally joined as a spear-carrier straight from Cambridge, where he had played a Macbeth for Trevor Nunn, his contemporary. Against the trend of the time, he gave Hamlet back his nobility of bearing and diction and yet endowed him with dangerous physical energy. “After that I stayed away from the stage as long as I could stand it. I needed a rest – after seven years banging away on that big stage you wonder if there isn’t an easier way of earning a living.” The alternative was television drama, in which he played D.H. Lawrence, Chekhov and Jung, but after two years he was getting restive for the stage again.

He was “really hungry” to get back to it when Yuri Lyubimov arrived to direct his own adaptation of ‘Crime and Punishment’. Soon he was even hungrier as he dieted for the role – not at Lyubimov’s suggestion but on his own initiative. “It wasn’t because I was overweight. I just thought it would be right. Hunger is a big factor in the story. Raskolnikov is skeletal in every way, in his feelings as well as his body. I couldn’t sleep much but I felt very healthy, on top of the world. I understood what people mean by the clarity you experience with fasting.”

Before rehearsals began he had made a trip to Moscow to see Lyubimov’s work at the Taganka Theatre and discovered the fervent following he had there. “They announced an extra performance at noon one Saturday and at two hours’ notice the theatre was mobbed like a football stadium. Though I speak little Russian, I knew from watching it what he was after. He’s a superlative director. I didn’t find him as autocratic as he’s supposed to be, and he was pleased with what he got from us. I found it incredible that we only played for six weeks at Hammersmith, that no West End management would offer us a theatre. Even Channel 4 was not interested.” Pennington hopes to do ‘Possessed’ with Lyubimov next year. “I would do anything for him. The last I heard, the actors at the Taganka were refusing to work with the director appointed in his place.”

Then came ‘Strider’, Tolstoy’s ‘story of a horse’ which symbolizes the Russian peasantry. “It’s as much a dancer’s role as an actor’s. I needed two hours at the barre before rehearsals and I need to be in very good physical shape to play it.”

He admits to a long-standing fascination with Russia. After an RSC tour wound up in Japan, he travelled home alone by the trans-Siberian railway and published a vivid evocation of the experience under the title of the train – ‘Rossya’. He has visited Chekhov’s house in Moscow and has now put together his own one-man show, an evening in Chekhov’s company, drawn from the letters, stories and biographical material. He will take it on tour this summer and later bring it to the Cottesloe.

What does Pennington think of the National, which he has reached a little late in his career, at the age of 40? “There’s a less familial atmosphere here than there was at Stratford a while ago. It’s very hard-boiled – if a show doesn’t work, off it comes. It’s a dog’s life, being a classical actor. Nowadays, new directors want new faces. There are more people contending for leading parts than there used to be in the days of the actor-knights. You rarely get a second chance at the big roles. There are a lot of discovered classical actors wandering around with not enough to do. Clearly an element of fashion comes into it. But I’d like to stay around and do a few more roles. Perhaps it’s the time.”

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