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From Macbeth to Lear - a lifelong love affair with Shakespeare

Western Morning News

21st April 2012

It was like love at first sight. Michael Pennington was 11 years old when his parents dragged him to see his first Shakespeare play, Macbeth, thinking it would be a good thing.

“The show started with a bloodcurdling scream that came slicing out of a darkness which then lifted to reveal a blood-soaked soldier staggering towards us and collapsing,” he recalls in his new book Sweet William.

“A moment after that, from a tangle of dead trees and twisted branches behind him, the figure of the three weird sisters arose to ask when they would meet again, in thunder, lightning or in rain.

“Two lines in, I was on the edge of my seat; and, the play being what it is, I stayed there all night.”

The love of Shakespeare that one play instilled in a young boy never left him. It took him into a hugely successful career in acting and lead him to setting up (with Michael Bogdanov) the English Shakespeare Company.

The subtitle of Sweet William says it all: “Twenty Thousand Hours with Shakespeare.”

The book came out of his one-man show on the Bard, also called Sweet William.

“My publisher said he’d like to publish the script, but I thought it was a daft idea,” says Michael. “The script was not particularly agreeable to read. But in reducing the show to a manageable two hours, I’d left out a huge amount. Otherwise the show would have been about 12 hours in length!

“So I thought it best to expand the show in a proper book of all that I think I know about Shakespeare.”

Michael certainly knows his subject. He’s played many of the major roles - Hamlet, Edgar in King Lear, Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, Angelo in Measure for Measure and Ferdinand in The Tempest - all for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

For his own company, he played Richard II, Coriolanus, Macbeth, Prince Hal and Henry V in Henry IV and Henry V.

His book is a fascinating read, but an unusual one. It marries his own experience of performing in Shakespeare’s plays with an almost scholarly approach to the text, while still connecting to the passion he suddenly encountered as an 11-year-old.

“You might come across essays from actors about performing Shakespeare, but it’s very rare that anyone talks about the process at any great length.”

He hopes the book will inspire others to fall for Shakespeare as he had done as a child.

“We used to read Shakespeare in class when I was nine or ten. The role of each new character would be read by the next kid. We were reading Romeo and Juliet and I was sitting in the seat to read the Prince’s servant.

“The boy in the next seat was in line to read Romeo in Act Five in the tomb. I persuaded him to swap seats, saying I was blinded by the light or some such nonsense. So I ended up reading the part of Romeo.”

Michael will be talking about his book and his career at a special dinner in Plymouth to mark the 30th anniversary of TRAC, the supporters club of the Theatre Royal.

It was in Plymouth in 1986 that the English Shakespeare Company staged their first productions - a controversial production of The Henrys (Henry IV, Part I, Henry IV Part II and Henry V)

“It was the Thatcher period and lots to argue about politically,” says Michael. “Our version of the invasion of France resembled the Falklands campaign. It was quite an eclectic style, and it upseet quite a lot of people.

“We did cover the bases and made sure we were the best verse speakers in the country. If you do something that’s as radical andd as political as that, you have to be very careful to make sure that classical values are kept.

“As a company we did a dozen productions and saw it as one big adventure.”

Michael has been lucky with his roles. There is an idea of a classical career, based in Stratford - home of the RSC - where you start with Romeo, then play Hamlet and end up in a later life as King Lear.

It was the kind of career-span enjoyed by “Ian Holm in the 60s, Alan Howard in the 70 and me in the 80s,” says Michael.

And who does Michael admire from the new generation?

“I saw Rory Kinnear do Hamlet at the National and it was very refreshing. I enjoyed it very much. I ever really liked Much Ado About Nothing, but I saw a great version with Tamsin Greig set in Cuba.

The career progression is not so clear now. I won’t be playing Hamlet again. I never played Romeo, and I’m too old now, so I play him in my show. I’ve played all the other roles, except Lear and I hope to do that some day."


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