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Labours of love

Michael Pennington discovered a passion for Shakespeare in his teens. He talks to Michael Billlington about his life with the bard.

Monday February 28, 2000
The Guardian

Michael Pennington reckons he could have been Britain's richest teenager. Back in the 50s, ITV presented a quiz-show called Double Your Money, the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire of its day. One contestant chose Shakespeare as his special subject, but flunked the final question on Measure for Measure that would have netted him £64,000.

The 14-year-old Pennington, having got all the previous questions right, was on the edge of his sofa yelling the answer at the screen. "What a misspent youth," he now says, "having an encyclopaedic knowledge of Shakespeare!" As my eyes shoot up, he admits, "No, I'm not being quite sincere, am I?"

He sure isn't. Shakespeare, for much of Pennington's working life, has been his mission and his meal-ticket. He has played Hamlet - one of the best I've seen - for the RSC, along with Berowne, Hector and both Angelo and the Duke in Measure for Measure. With Michael Bogdanov, he founded and ran the piratical English Shakespeare Company in the 80s.

Currently he's polishing up his Stratford Timon of Athens for a Barbican opening on Wednesday, while correcting the proofs for his wise, witty book Twelfth Night: A User's Guide, to be published in April. He's the nearest equivalent to Granville-Barker in our own day: an actor-scholar who brings to Shakespeare a wealth of practical experience.

For Pennington, playing Timon is the accidental fulfilment of a dream: he took over after Alan Bates pulled out with a chest illness. "One night last summer," he says, "I was going to see a friend in Phantom of the Opera. Just before going in, I checked my phone for messages and found one from Greg Doran, the Stratford director, who was remarkably cool, asking if I was in the country. I found he was offering me Timon, with three weeks to go before the first preview! Within 36 hours I was in rehearsal.

"To me it's incredibly sentimental because I was in the 1965 Stratford production with Scofield. I had a line and a half, watched Scofield from the wings every night and thought, 'I'd love to do this one day when I'm grown up'. Little did I know that the next Timon on the main Stratford stage, 34 years later, would be me."

Timon is one of Shakespeare's oddest heroes: a spendthrift who, when times turn hard and his chums desert him, transforms into a railing misanthrope. Watching Timon of Athens, said theatre critic Tynan of Mayfair, is "like going to some scandalously sophisticated party at which, halfway through, the host falls down drunk and begins to rave from under the piano". But Pennington, with his excavating intelligence, thinks there's infinitely more to the play than that.

"On first sight," he says, "it's the story of a man who goes on an extraordinary journey from Camelot to Cardboard City. But I think there is a positive idealism in him that makes him a major Shakespearean figure. He's a champagne socialist who believes that if you're lucky enough to be born rich you must share it. There's a genuine public spiritedness about him which is slightly absurd. What's interesting is the way that turns into its opposite.

"We're playing it Jacobean but, in a curious way, it reminds me of the 60s. One of the most potent images of that period is the face of the mass-killer, Charles Manson, coming out at you like Jim Morrison, who was a cultural hero. I see the play as an extension of that idea: a study of what happens when idealism goes sour. Except that in the end Timon achieves a provisional salvation. He faces down his demons and there's a sort of exhilarating peace about the conclusion that seems to me completely Shakespearean. Like Richard II, Timon reconstructs his personality to become a human being."

Pennington's love-affair with Shakespeare - he compares it to a marriage, in that you have periods of acrimony and fatigue but you keep coming back - dates from childhood. He was taken by his parents - his father was a Chancery lawyer - to see an Old Vic Macbeth and, on coming home, instantly started to act out the play. By 15 he had seen virtually the entire canon. But Pennington's missionary Bardic zeal is combined with an awareness that Shakespeare, like Homer, occasionally nodded.

Both qualities come out in his book on Twelfth Night, which is studded with self-critical accounts of the productions he has directed for the ESC and for companies in Tokyo and Chicago. Pennington writes movingly of Shakespeare's "transforming power": he cites the example of a high-security prisoner playing Caliban in an ESC workshop, "his poetry a tangible defiance of the fact that he couldn't see over a wall a few feet away". He also writes, with crucifying accuracy, about Shakespeare's tendency to hammer home a gag and about the plot-delaying procrastination of the sadistic scene in Twelfth Night where Feste taunts the imprisoned Malvolio. Only a true lover, you feel, could write so unsparingly about his mistress's faults.

Oddly, for a man so variously talented, Pennington has no further plans to direct or write. He loves acting, has Antony, Lear and Prospero in his sights and wouldn't mind a crack at Ibsen, Strindberg and more Eduardo de Filippo: he did Filumena for the Peter Hall Company and was mortified when it closed. He gets a bit pissed off at being told he should direct: it is, he says, "rather like an electrician being proposed a carpentry course". And, having written four books, including a practical guide to Hamlet, he feels that's it. "All I do in these books," he says, "is tap into the energy of the play. The Hamlet book was relatively easy to write because the play has such narrative pulse. Twelfth Night was more difficult because it's elusive, impressionistic, and it's hard to find the play's moral register. At one point I was in despair but I hope I've now cracked it."

My own hope is that he can be forced back to his word-processor: he's too good a writer to waste. As an actor, he's also a rare example of a vanishing breed: the predominantly classical performer who can make old texts live in the present. He's done his share of telly and the odd movie but his natural stamping-ground is the classical stage where lung capacity has to be matched to psychological penetration. In Timon, if Stratford is anything to go by, he not only restores a neglected play but seems to be gearing himself up to play a most uncivil Lear. Just as well he wasn't a schoolboy millionaire quiz-kid after all.







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