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Shakespearean actor learns from ‘Love’

Sarasota Herald Tribune, 4th October 2009, Jay Handelman

After roughly 40 years of playing about every role possible in the plays of William Shakespeare, you might think that Michael Pennington knows just about everything an actor can about the Bard.

But you’d be wrong. And he has been happily making new discoveries while rehearsing with Natasha Parry in ‘Love is my sin,’ a piece by legendary stage director Peter Brook built around more than two dozen Shakespeare sonnets. The play has its U.S. Premiere beginning Thursday at the Ringling International Arts Festival.

Pennington, who developed his own highly praised one-man show about Shakespeare called ‘Sweet William’, said he was attracted to this new project because he hadn’t worked much with the sonnets.

“This is all fresh ground for me. I had a little bit of a working knowledge of the sonnets, but Peter has been cunning enough to choose some I was not familiar with,” he said in a telephone interview from Paris before a recent rehearsal.

Pennington, who took over from another actor after initial festival brochures were printed, said the sonnets are “a great source of conjecture and curiosity about whether they give is an insight into Shakespeare’s private life.”

The play Brook created for his Paris-based theatre company, C.I.T.C., features about 30 sonnets, which “tell the story of a love affair or relationship from beginning through hard times o reconciliation at the end,” Pennington said. “It’s a lifetime relationship. And he’s chosen sonnets that particularly reflect that.”

Pennington first worked with Parry about 30 years ago at the Royal Shakespeare Company, but this is the first chance to work with Brook, who founded the company.

“He is a giant figure in the theatre and has been since the 1950s, when he was in the first stage of his career,” he said. “He was extremely successful in the commercial theatre, then he was a founding member of the Royal Shakespeare in the 1960s and his work became more experimental.”

Brook is perhaps best known for the famed productions of  ‘Marat/Sade’ in London and New York, as well as productions of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘King Lear’ with Paul Scofield.

“His reputation is enormous. He has had a revolutionary impact on the English theatre in the 1960s and 1970s and since then in Paris,” Pennington said.

Still, Pennington said there’s nothing intimidating about working with Brook.

“I’m not sure what it would have been like 30 years ago - I might have been more frightened - but he combines being very demanding with being very warm and encouraging.”

After speaking Shakespeare’s words so frequently, Pennington is finding the sonnets a new challenge.

“They are very formal. The form is very strict. In musical terms, they’re like Bach or Stravinsky. They follow a certain musical pattern,” he said.

What he found most interesting is “how far one can treat them as dramatic speeches. In his dramatic writing, the arguments take characters this way and that, but the sonnets are a much purer form.”

Despite the formality, they are not restricting.

“It makes you more free with the tempo and meter behind what you’re doing.”

Pennington, who may be known to some film fans for his role as Moff Jerjerrod in ‘Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi’, discovered Shakespeare at age 11 at a performance of ‘Macbeth.’

“I was not willing to go - I was only interested in football. But from the first line of that play, I was upright in my seat,” he recalled. “It had an extraordinary impact on me. The excitement of the story. It was like the effect that rock ‘n’ roll had on some people.”

Today Shakespeare is his “favourite music.”

“After 50 years, it’s like a very long marriage. There are times when I don’t want anything new to do with Shakespeare and I’ll go off to do Chekhov or something, but he keeps pulling me back. What an extraordinary impact he’s had on my life.”

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