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Michael Pennington

Exeunt.com, 22nd November 2011, Neil Dowden

Michael Pennington has been one of the stars of the British stage for the last four decades. His name and face may not be quite as recognisable as some of his contemporaries because he has not made the same impact on screen, but his many critical successes in heavyweight roles in the theatre have established him as one of our leading exponents of the mainstream classical repertoire.

Over the years, he has excelled in plays by the likes of Shakespeare, Moliére, Congreve, Ibsen, Chekhov and Shaw, as well as creating new characters in works by David Edgar and Ronald Harwood.

His latest role in the autobiographical lead in Ibsen’s rarely performed and notoriously difficult play When We Dead Awaken in a new version by Mike Poulton re-titled Judgement Day, at the enterprising Print Room. When I meet up with him during a lunchtime rehearsal break I half-expect him to be in full-bearded, Old Testament prophet mode like Ibsen himself, but the 68-year-old Pennington is not only clean shaven and informally dressed but exudes a distinctly gentle presence as he modestly proffers his opinions in a beautifully modulated baritone voice.

Set in the Norwegian mountains, Ibsen’s dreamlike, symbolist play is a fascinating exploration of an artist’s ambivalent relationship with the raw material of life, triggered specifically by the reunion between elderly sculptor Rodek (Pennington) and his former model Irena (played by Penny Downie), the muse who inspired his greatest work. He has captured her soul in stone but by doing so seems to have turned her flesh and blood existence into a sort of deathly petrification. James Dacre’s is the first in London since the Almeida’s in 1990.

Poulton’s version alludes to Ibsen’s own original title ‘The Resurrection Day’, which is taken from the name of sculpture discussed in the play. Pennington is full of praise for Poulton, a successful past adapter of Ibsen with whom he worked earlier this year on Eduard De Filipp’s The Syndicate at Chichester. “Everybody told me this Ibsen was unplayable and like his early works he really wrote it to be read not staged, but Mike has done a brilliant job of boiling it down to its essentials. Even though Ibsen’s late expressionist plays are more stripped down, older translations tended to be more verbose and full of padding. Mike’s ear is so sharp though that he has given it an almost Beckett-like precision without doing any damage to the play’s structure.”

Pennington is keen to stress the universal humanity of the play: “Although Rodek is evidently a self-portrait, I only used Ibsen’s biography up to a point, and certainly don’t want to look like him, because this is about situations we can all recognise. Although his style has evolved, Ibsen covers similar archetypal preoccupations to his earlier works. This is not just a rarefied discussion about art but ablut everyday dynamic in male/female relations.” He hopes the play will provoke some impassioned post-show discussions.

In fact, surprisingly for such a classical actor, Pennington came late to Ibsen - and late Ibsen at that. His first performance was not until 2003, in an English Touring Theatre production of John Gabriel Borkman, then last year he played another Ibsenesque figure in David Edgar’s new version of The Master Builder at Chichester. Why did it take him so long? “Yes, it’s strange. I think I was put off by some stodgy Ibsen translations and clunky productions. We stage Ibsen much better now - not so doom-laden and eve bringing out the humour. The same is even truer of Chekhov - and I’ve always been more of a Chekhov man.” In fact, ha has only appeared in The Seagull and The Three Sisters, but has has played different parts in two productions of each. And he has toured his one-man show about Chekhov all over the world since it was first staged at the National theatre in 1984. “I was very curious about the man himself and I wanted to track him down. When I revived it about 15 years later the show evolved a lot. Originally it didn’t feature his plays as it was more about his work as a fiction writer and a doctor, but I changed this to asking the audience which Chekhov play they want me to talk about - a form of audience participation!”

The other great playwright Pennington is most associated with  is, of course,  pre-eminently Shakespeare. He first played Hamlet while still and English student at Cambridge University Dramatic Club in 1964. He joined the RSC soon after, working his way up until he started getting juicy roles in the 1970s like Angelo in Measure for Measure and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, and reaching a pinnacle with his much acclaimed performance as the Prince of Denmark again in 1980. He says, laughing “At various times I have also played Fortinbras, Laertes, Claudius and the Ghost so I may well hold the record for playing the most parts in Hamlet!”

Pennington describes this period as the “glory years” of the RSC, first under Peter Hall (with whom he later teamed up at the Old Vic and in the West End)and then Trevor Nunn, working alongside actors such as Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Patrick Stewart and David Suchet. After this he set up the English Shakespeare Company with controversial director Michael Bogdanov in 1986, for whom over the following six years he played great Shakespearean roles such as Prince Hal/Henry V, Richard II, Leontes, Coriolanus and Macbeth. He recalls: “Michael had a very different approach, more politically driven and predominantly modern dress, which was unusual then. We complemented each other very well and I learned a lot about management as joint artistic director.”

In the last few years Pennington has toured his one-mail Shakespearean show Sweet William, while last year he performed the sonnets in Love Is My Sin, directed by Peter Brook, on an international tour and on Broadway. He has himself tried his hand at directing: strangely Twelfth Night on three different occasions plus A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Regent’s Park. However, he clarifies: “I don’t regard myself as a director. I like knocking around in the yard with the other kids - in the thick of the action!”

In addition, Pennington has written a number of books. He describes his User’s Guides to Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night as “an insider’s practical advice which I hope appeals to theatregoers as well as academics. In the past, practitioners haven’t written much about Shakespeare - directors have been too busy and actors haven’t fancied it but that’s changing and academic study has rightly shifted much more towards seeing the plays in the context of stage production.” As well as his show spin-off on Chekhov, he wrote about Chekhov’s plays in A Pocket Guide to Ibsen, Chekhov and Strindberg (co-authored with Stephen Unwin, and another book about Shakespeare will be published next year.

With such whole-hearted commitment to the world of theatre, it’s perhaps not surprising that Pennington does not have a strong screen ‘profile’. Although he has done regular work on TV and made a few films (including playing Moff Jerjerrod in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi in 1983 and former Labour Party leader Michael Foot in the upcoming The Iron Lady opposite Meryl Street), I wondered if he ever regretted missing out on some of the fame and monsy associated with TV and film? “I wish I had done more as I love fil, about the time I was offered Hamlet at the RSC a big film role came up but I had to choose between perhaps the greatest stage role ever written and a possible film career, and instinctively I opted for the theatre.”

In fact, this year sees the 50th anniversary of Pennington’s first stage performance when a teenager with the National Youth Theatre. He remembers: “It wasn’t a very big part, but at 18 I performed the Earl of Salisbury’s soliloquy in Richard II at the Apollo Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue.” for the future the only two roles he longs to play are Lear and Prospero. “At some point you start to flag in terms of physical energy but I would love to do them ... and I think it will happen.” meanwhile, you have to see this consummate classical actor treading the boards in Notting Hill over the next month.

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Michael Pennington read English at Cambridge University. He has played many leading classical and contemporary roles and has a particularly long association with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He co-founded the English Shakespeare Company with Michael Bogdanov in 1986 and has toured his one-man shows about Shakespeare and Chekhov internationally. Pennington is appearing in Ibsen’s Judgement Day, adapted from Ibsen’s late play When We Dead Awaken by Mike Poulton, at the Print Room until December 17th 2011.