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Sweet William

Twenty Thousand Hours with Shakespeare

The British Theatre Guide, Philip Fisher

One sometimes wonders whether the world really needs yet another book on Shakespeare. Publishers clearly do not as they continue to appear on a constant basis.

Such pondering is certainly not appropriate when considering Michael Pennington’s charming reflection, based on a quite staggering “Twenty Thousand Hours with Shakespeare”.

Sweet William, which is effectively the child of extensive researches that underpinned the solo show of the same name, is not pure biography. While it does make reference to the Bard’s life this is usually for information and there is little of the original in that element of the writing.

What the author has attempted to achieve is to offer readers a view of the works themselves from a viewpoint that is rarely mined.

As an actor and sometime director, Pennington is in a very good position to view Shakespeare’s plays through their characters. He has as deep a knowledge as anybody of this wide selection of personalities who encompass good and bad, rich and to a lesser extent poor, male and female and between them define the Complete Works.

Starting from the perspective of reviewing the works chronologically, Pennington runs through them consecutively though fairly quickly moves out of sequence to explore themed where he believes that this will help to aid understanding.

There are also sections that become essays on particular topics for example acting trends and women in Shakespeare, finishing with an overview of his place in today’s society.

In addition to character, this actor turned biographer has a deep love and understanding of the language. This becomes the second string to literary bow and he uses it liberally to make points about the plays that he analyses so instructively.

Ultimately, like the stage version, Sweet William is a love letter to a long lost and almost completely unknown writer whose genius continues to excite and enchant viewers and readers almost 400 years after his death.

Michael Pennington’s book will also excite and enchant his own readers ad undoubtedly give them a better knowledge and understanding of the works of the Bard, whether they are newcomers, casual fans, fellow actors or devoted academics.

The Stage,1st February 2012, Susan Elkin

I write all the time about learning in these online columns. That’s the whole point. Education and training is what this blog is about.

Usually, however, I write about other people’s learning. Today I have to tell you about my own, because I can’t remember when I learned so much from a single volume as I have from Michael Pennington’s engaging, absorbing, congenial, informative new book Sweet William, published by Nick Hern Books.

Pennington, who reckons he’s spent 20,000 hours with Shakespeare since first being blown away by Macbeth at the Old Vic when he was 11 years old, has been touring a fine one-man show about Shakespeare called Sweet William for several years. But the book is different. It has time and space to explore the plays and the author’s experience of, and views about, them in leisurely depth, although it  never gets boring ad always reads like a entertaining chat with a master practitioner.

Pennington analyses every play he has been involved with - almost the entire canon - taking them in roughly the order they were written, with comments on what might have been going on around Shakespeare at the time and lots of fascinating digressions.

For example, he says that the equivocator who creeps into the Porter’s drunken stand-up comedy in Macbeth would have been understood in early Jacobean Britain “to refer to the trial of the Jesuit priest Father Henry Garnet …a devout and peaceful man who had been confessor to some of the Gunpowder Plotters and felt that he was bound by the confessional not to betray their secrets to the government.” And that, says Pennington (who has misgivings about Macbeth, which he sees as containing far too much political cow-towing) led to Garnet’s swiftly being reinterpreted as a Satanic figure. He compares the post-gunpowder plot anti-Catholic hysteria with the Islamophobia which followed 9/11 and the 2005 London bombings. Interesting stuff.

And, as a former English teacher, who probably taught Henry V more than any other Shakespeare play, I wish I could have shared Pennington’s insights with my A level students. And I hope people teaching they play now will do just that. There isn’t much Pennington doesn’t know about Henry V, whom he regards as a pretty cold fish until he finally gets a spark going with Katharine at the end of the play, because he famously played Hal in both parts of Henry IV and then the title role in Henry V - sometimes all in one day - for the now defunct English Shakespeare Company which he founded with Michael Bogdanov.

Sometimes he’s anecdotal, often lyrical, always thoughtful and occasionally laugh-aloud funny. Pennington’s book is a must-read for anyone interested in Shakespeare from almost any angle - actor, drama student, teacher, director, technician, literature student or audience member.

The Oxford Times, 5th April 2012

Pennington, one of our leading classical actors, has fined down his thoughts on the Bard into a most accessible book hat is no way a primer or textbook. As the subtitle, Twenty Thousand Hours with Shakespeare, suggests, it is, rather, the distilled experiences of one who first saw Macbeth in 1956 aged 11, and has since given himself to all those on stage performing - plus rehearsing, and thinking, and writing about - William Shakespeare.

The title is from his very successful one-man show, recently at the Oxford Playhouse, but the text is built from those accumulated decades of study: Pennington is already an avowed and published Shakespearean scholar.

He writes intelligently and intellectually. And he likes to impress - quite justifiably - by digging into the less obvious plays, suggesting, for example, that Shakespeare delivers “his most unsparing study of the internal agonies of childhood” with the young Prince Mamillius in A Winter’s Tale. And then he writes hauntingly about a speech in one of the great ones - Flute on Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Pennington deems it “this beautiful play - as gorgeous but in some ways as impenetrable as a perfect diamond”.  You should have a touch of Shakespeare knowledge before approaching this book, but you won’t get a better insight into the verse and history.

Exeunt, 5th April 2012, Neil Dowden

There are few people more qualified to write a book about Shakespeare from a practitioner’s point of view than Michael Pennington. One of our finest classical stage actors of the last forty years, he forged his reputation by playing many of the great Shakespearean roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the English Shakespeare Company (of which he was co-founder and co-artistic director with Michael Bogdanov). In September he will play Mark Antony is Antony and Cleopatra opposite Kim Cattrall in Janet Suzman’s production at the Chichester Festival Theatre. Pennington has also directed several Shakespeare productions, and has written three books on individual plays, so he writes with insider authority.

Inspired by his one-man show about Shakespeare also called Sweet William, which he has toured around the world, Pennington takes the opportunity in this book to explore much more deeply the connections between the playwright’s life and works. Having himself seen the light as an 11-year-old schoolboy enthralled by a staging of Macbeth at the Old Vic in the early 1950s, he is determined to relay the torch to others: “Now I’m an expert of sorts myself, having at a rough estimate spent twenty thousand hours of my life so far performing Shakespeare, leave alone the time taken rehearsing, talking, thinking and writing about him…I realise that all I’ve learned over the years doesn’t add up to a hill of beans unless I can…pass on…that same intoxication of sound and meaning, its sudden impact on ear, eye and stomach”.

He goes a long way to achieving that in this beautifully written book, which combines the intellectual rigorousness of academic detailed study of text (minus alienating jargon or excessive citations) with illuminating references to specific dramatic productions and performances (minus self-indulgent theatrical anecdotes). The result is an accessible but not dumb-downed account of Shakespeare’s world. Pennington provides considerable insights into this complex, much-contested writer, using a modest and witty approach which, while not claiming to have all the answers, nonetheless comes across with the passionate conviction of a lifetime of personal experience.

The book ix basically arranged chronologically, alternating between biography and writings, though occasionally certain themes take over and interesting side-paths are followed. There is nothing new in the information given about Shakespeare’s personal relationships or professional career, but the way these are linked with what he wrote is always thoughtful and usually convincing. Pennington does not idolise his subject, commenting on flaws in the plays: the beginnings and endings vary widely in their success, and the humour  can often be overdone. And he does not pretend to have special knowledge of what makes him tick as a man: “It is certainly quite hard to understand a writer so self-effacing, to whom the autobiographical assumptions we generally make about artists are so inapplicable”. But he adds to our appreciation.

Like the Bible, Shakespeare is all things to all men, with his ambiguous meaning and enigmatic personality giving rise to multiple interpretations. As Pennington points out, “We still don’t know a single one of his opinions, but we often quote from him without realising we’re doing it, to make our own more persuasive”. Above all, he highlights Shakespeare’s humanistic ability to inhabit an incomparably wide range of characters presenting a huge variety of outlooks on the world, thus enlarging our sympathies: “He brings us together, with each other and ourselves”. And this highly engaging book helps spread the word.


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