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Stateofthearts.org.uk, 25th June 2009, Michael Cullen

Michael Pennington likes playing madmen. When asked to name his favourite roles, he unhesitatingly recalls the two stone he lost to play a delirium tremens Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, before sketching a straitjacketed, porphyria-stricken George III in 2003.

However, surprisingly for a man in his fifth decade of Shakespearean leads, Lear remains the biggest loon on Pennington’s horizon. “If I were to go into rehearsal tomorrow I would love to play it, I know. Lear lies ahead,” he says with oracular conviction. Over the years, Shakespeare’s role in Pennington’s life has become increasingly deep-seated. He remembers taking part in a production of The Tempest with convicts in Maidstone prison.

“The physical act of performing Shakespeare for these guys, who were mostly lifers, was quite extraordinary,” he recalls. “They were playing roles which were quite often about freedom - the freedom to go hunting, to wander in the woods - and they played them as if their lives depended on it. It was an extraordinary feeling.”

The two plays that the 65-year-old is performing at Hampstead deal with subjects that informed his life at various stages. Sweet William provides a tour around Shakespeare and his work, allowing him to recite passages that he never could on stage - Cleopatra for example, and Romeo.

Secondly, he is performing Anton Chekhov - a look at the playwright and short story writer’s life and work.  Pennington has a lasting sympathy with Russia. He describes the juxtaposition of glitz and famine at a first-night party in his book about Chekhov. “My interpreter was shovelling canapés into her handbag, all the while wearing a fur coat, and downing champagne as if she had to live on it for the next few weeks - which, in a sense, she probably did,” he says

“At that time the infrastructure was so wretched in Russia - but people were trying to behave as if they were doing fine.” Skeletal portrayals of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment were accompanied with the frisson of working with a director who was reportedly being trailed by the KGB. “The main excitement of that play was the great direction of Yuri Lyubimov, who ‘defected’ from the USSR in 1963. You’d hear all this stuff about him being trailed by the KGB and death threats, so he was a very intriguing man to work with.”

In Pennington, it’s possible to detect a considered, deep-set sensitivity that would betoken more a writer than a script-a-month board-cracker. However he dismisses this suggestion, saying “writing would be too lonely, too boring.”

This intelligence is revealed in his singular analysis of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens - a part he learnt in three weeks. Instead of boasting of candle-burning nights memorising speeches, he reflects on the play’s darker themes. “It’s a play about the vanity of generosity - the compulsive generous man, a big party-thrower. But it’s about the loneliness of it all. It’s a very interesting psychological type that Shakespeare obviously spotted all those pre-Freudian years ago.”

Circumstances dictated that Pennington did not limit himself to shakespeare. In 1982, he played an Imperial officer supervising the construction of the Death Star in the Return of the Jedi episode of the Star Wars saga. “I still get fans coming down to Hampstead Theatre in their macs to get autographs!” he laughs. “I always get kids sending me photographs with specific instruction: ‘Sign it but don’t personalise it.’ Of course they’re going to sell the picture, so I always personalise it. And they finish by saying ‘we think you were fantastic as Moff Jerjerrod, if you ever fo any more acting please let us know!”

Anton Chekhov sees Pennington in full-body role immersion mode. He attempts less to deal with the work of the man than he does the life and character of his subject. “He was the easiest company - so easy to get along with. However, he also had the reserve of a writer. I thought his could lend itself well to the show because you can play with the audience in a certain way by being in turns extremely good company, so they can almost feel they can talk back to you, but then become quite a remote figure.”

Pennington fondly recalls the beginning of his ‘marriage’ with Shakespeare, which began when he was 11 watching Macbeth: “It was something in the language, in that music I was hearing. It was like hearing rock ‘n’ roll for the first time. I rushed straight home and read Macbeth out loud, and then I went for the next play and read that out loud.”

It’s a union from which he still bears the scars. He still has a bad back from an overzealous somersault performed in a fight scene as Mercutio in 1976. But half a century and 20,000 hours of performances later, his passion is not dimmed.

“You have to devote yourself to Hollywood and I’ve never had the patience to do that,” he says. “I suppose the truth is that I prefer playing love than in a studio. Audiences fascinate me.”

Pennington returns again to the subject of prisoners and their connection to Shakespeare. He remembers a group of lifers in Long Lartin prison and planning to read them some modern poems about how boring England was, to make them feel better about their lot.

“They heard this and said, ‘you’re from Stratford, right? Read us some Shakespeare!’ So we thought about it and I read them ‘To be or not to be’. Everything about that speech meant something to them. It was an extraordinary feeling. Shakespeare is the liberator.”

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