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A labourer’s love

Colorado springs Independent, 4th September 2008, Kirsten Akens

Michael Pennington’s connection to Shakespeare transcends infatuation

Michael Pennington has spent more than 20,000 hours performing Shakespeare.

“It’s appalling, isn’t it?” he jokes.

If so, it’s only because Pennington’s better known - immortalized, even - for a single week of work in a very different world.

It was 1980. Pennington had just finished two years of performing the title role in Hamlet at Stratford-upon-Avon with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

“People said, ‘What is the next mountain you can climb?’” Pennington says.

It proved to be the first acting job that came along, that of Imperial officer Moff Jerjerrod in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.

Pennington says that for the next 15 to 20 years, the Jerjerrod gig was just a piece of his biography. But when the Star Wars films were remastered and reissued in the late ‘90s, and a whole new generation fell for them, the character took on its own life.

“It was five days with Darth Vader,” Pennington says. “And now I get a mailbag every week. Sometimes appreciative. Sometimes it’s just autograph-hunting.”

“But you know, I’m glad to be remembered for something,” he adds, laughing, “even if it is as opposed to Hamlet.”

The Tempest

It’s one thing to become an actor. It’s another to commit yourself, as an actor, primarily to one playwright.

Pennington joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1964 and played parts including Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet and Dumaine in Love’s Labour’s Lost. In 1986, he formed the English Shakespeare Company and began touring the Henry Trilogy. Now, almost 25 years later, he’s played most major Shakespeare roles.

Pennington can vividly describe the day, at 11 years old in 1955, when his life moved in this direction. His parents took him to see Macbeth at the Old Vic theatre, in his hometown of London.

“I was very, very unwilling to go, being only interested in football,” he says. But that changed because from the first ear-piercing scream, Pennington was infatuated.

“I always call it like a Quentin Tarantino version of the play, because it was extremely explicit and extremely bloody,” he says. “But more than that, something to do with the language, absolutely did me in, as we say in England. ... From that day to this, I can’t read Shakespeare in silence.”

Pennington makes sure to add that he believes he connected with Shakespeare's work even before seeing Macbeth. He remembers reading Romeo and Juliet in school when he was about 9 or 10. Whenever a new character came along, the next student in the row would be assigned the part.

“It was just automatic like that,” he says. “And I remember engineering, changing me seat in class, so that when Romeo arrived, it would fall to me.”

All’s Well that Ends Well

Pennington’s got a permanent seat with Shakespeare now, in his one-man show, Sweet William. In talking about the genesis of the show, he says he’d realized he’d spent more a half-century since that evening at Macbeth “in the service” to Shakespeare.

“It was time that I accounted for my tastes and preferences and some of my prejudices about Shakespeare and how I’d changed my mind about how to do him over the years,” he says.

The spine of the show is Shakespeare’s life. Pennington says many people believe there aren’t a lot of  facts known about Shakespeare, and that indeed “he seems to have been a genius in minding his own business.”

But biographically, Pennington adds, there’s quite a lot to learn. Like why his writing seems to change from the first half of his career to the second: Shakespeare spent the first half under one monarch, Queen Elizabeth, and the second under King James, which begot a different kind of society.

In Sweet William, Pennington talks about Shakespeare’s life and recites parts of lesser-known plays, but he also talks about his own feelings and views, making the overall effect that of a story of Pennington’s life with this particular man.

Perhaps most importantly, Sweet William is an honest story told in an honest, simple way. Almost 25 years ago, Pennington did a solo show about Anton Chekhov. It was complicated and elaborate because Pennington performed as Chekhov, and there was a lot of lighting and sound work. The experience helped him decide what he did and didn’t want in Sweet William.

“Not to give too much away,” he says, “[but] it’s me and a chair and a light.”

As You Like It

Whether it’s through Sweet William or the books he’s written or the blog he hosts for the U.K.’S Guardian newspaper,Pennington still gets excited about every opportunity to share and discuss Shakespeare’s works. And he recommends that, no matter young or old, everyone should try to read one of the Bard’s plays aloud or attend a performance when just starting out with Shakespeare.

“Go to a production in the hope that it’s a good one,” he says. “Obviously, badly done Shakespeare is going to put you off for life, but even halfway well-done Shakespeare, like I suspect the Macbeth I saw was halfway good, it was enough, it was enough to carry it to me.”

And it doesn’t really matter which you pick up or attend.

“As far as I’m concerned, Shakespeare is one big river,” Pennington says. “Wherever you put your foot in, you’re going to get something good.”

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