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Pennington breathes life into Shakespeare

The Gazette, Colorado Springs 28th August 2008, Travis Duncan

The year was 1955 and London’s legendary Old Vic theatre was going through a five-year period when it produced all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays.

Michael Pennington pinpoints its production of Macbeth in particular, as the moment Shakespeare became an obsession for him.

“The play began with a blackout, and there was this blood-curdling scream,” he said.

“The lights came up and there was this soldier covered in blood collapsing dead on the stage ... I just shot to the edge of my seat as an 11-year old.”

Now 65 and perhaps best known in the U.S. For his role as Moff Jerjerrod, the commander of the Death Star in 1983’s Return of the Jedi, Pennington is heading to Colorado Springs to perform his one-man production of Sweet William, about the life and work of William Shakespeare, as part of the Colorado Festival of World Theatre.

The two-hour show, in which Pennington plays himself while tracing Shakespeare’s life story, is his statement of where he stands on the subject of Shakespeare after 50 years performing his work.

“There’s a little bit of the popular stuff, like Richard III and Hamlet,” he said, “But there’s a lot of speeches in there that people don’t know so well on the whole. But the narrative gives rise to them, if I could put it that way, and it’s very personal to me, very idiosyncratic.”

Pennington spent 18 months writing and revising the play, between other projects, before first performing it in 2006.

It wasn’t the first time he was challenged to work alone on a stage for more than two hours; he’s been performing his one-man show about Anton Chekhov for more than 20 years.

But the Chekhov play was more complicated: Pennington played Chekhov himself (as opposed to simply dipping into characters from his work), and it features a “set and lighting and the paraphernalia of a full production. I’d often thought during that time that I’d like to have a much more portable, easy show to travel. And with Shakespeare as my first love, it seemed an obvious choice.”

It is Sweet Williams’s idiosyncrasies, the fact that it’s not just “a daisy chain of famous speeches,” that Pennington seems most proud of.

Sweet William , as well as the story of Pennington’s obsession, begins with that portentous evening 53 years ago at the Old Vic.

Pennington’s parents weren’t regular theatregoers, but they dragged him along, hoping to infuse some culture into their son. They ended up creating a Shakespeare addict.

“It was a kind of Quentin Tarantino production: extremely bloodthirsty and in-your-face,” Pennington said.

“There are ghosts and murders, and there’s a great deal of bloodshed. It’s everything that would appeal to a teenager.”

Pennington would return again and again to the Vic, seeing nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays by the time he reached 15, drawn by “that particularly passionate language that caught me in the solar plexus,” as well as the rock star worship he saw many of the actors receive.

It was an auspicious ere for the Vic, when thespians such as Richard Burton and Ann Todd, movie stars in their own right, performed in front of kids in the gallery that screamed at the actors as if they were The Beatles. It’s an experience Pennington said he’s been trying to recreate ever since.

Pennington began his professional career in 1964 with The Royal Shakespeare Company, which gave performances he describes as “very classical.”

He formed The English Shakespeare Company in 1986, which did all its plays in modern dress and with “a very modern sensibility.”

It’s a dichotomy he said he’s vacillated between multiple times in his career: Should Shakespeare be performed as it was 400 years ago, or should it adapt to the times, so that the work remains vibrant and new to each successive generation?

Pennington doesn’t offer up any definitive conclusions in the play; what he does offer, is two lives spent in the service of acting.

“It’s been a life’s work,” Pennington said, “and I’ve changed my mind a lot as to how one makes these 400-year-old masterpieces speak to a new audience, and I’ve had a lot of adventures. A great number of anecdotes arise and a few of them are in the show ... It’s not just to do with what Shakespeare did in 1598, but it’s got traveller’s tales as well.”

This tension concerning how best to perform Shakespeare’s work, as well as changing styles in Shakespearean acting, will be covered in the accompanying program ‘Conversation with Michael Pennington’.

“In my working life, there’s been such a tremendous move towards realism and making sense of the lines rather than just indulging in the music of them,” he said. “I sometimes wonder if that’s a style we’ll be laughing at 50 years from now, just as we laugh at the style from 50 years ago. We speak less poetically now ... Shakespeare’s as carefully orchestrated as Bach or Mozart, and you have to respect it, but you want it to mean something and be clear and logical and argumentative. And that’s out preoccupation these days.”

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