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An interview with Antony himself, Michael Pennington

CFT web site, September 2012

Most actors, especially if they are steeped in Shakespeare as Michael Pennington , will keep a secret list of the Shakespearean roles which they’d like to play. So did the offer to give his Antony in Chichester Festival Theatre’s production of Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare’s great romantic tragedy, come as a surprise?

“It did, in a way” Michael replies. “I’d thought vaguely that it was time that I was playing the Prospero’s and the Lear’s, although there has been quite a spate of King Lear’s recently. So Antony wasn’t really on my radar, although more so perhaps than Richard III or Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing which have never really appealed to me. I’d played Antony before in an audio production for the Open University with Lindsay Duncan but I’d always thought of Antony as being very stocky in stature - like Anthony Hopkins who did in fact play the part opposite Judi Dench at the National in the 1980s. But it’s been absolutely glorious to do. Once you start to work on one of his plays, Shakespeare fires you off in all directions. All the possible options you can take suddenly appear and once again Shakespeare so excites you that he turns you into a cheerful insomniac.”

Michael’s long association with the RSC and his various books on Shakespeare give him a particular insight into Antony and Cleopatra.

“The play is written, we think, quite late in Shakespeare’s career, in 1606 when he was in his early forties, and you eel that he is experimenting. The action shifts with great speed from Greece to Rome and back again, on land then on sea. Some scenes are very long, others no more than eight lines. He sets himself all sorts of challenges. You sense that he is restless, that he’s pushing the verse in new, different directions. It’s incredibly luxuriant; it’s so sumptuous that it takes your breath away.

It’s a play that can be difficult to get right,” says Michael.

“You can be criticised if the play becomes over-produced in the lavish manner of the Victorian theatre. On the other hand, some productions go to the opposite extreme and make it too domestic. It’s as if Antony and Cleopatra were Mr and Mrs Smith rather than heroic beings who are very conscious of their breeding and status. Janet Suzman, our director, has made substantial cuts and so prepared the production so that for the actors, it’s been like stepping aboard a gently moving bus.”

What kind of man is Antony? Is he the same dynamic character whose oratory in Julius Caesar turns the tables on Brutus, Cassius and the other conspirators?

“He’s much older and he’s beginning to think that he’s over the hill, although he keeps challenging Octavius Caesar to single combat and so he must still think he’s capable of fighting. And a lot of actors say that Antony and Cleopatra is ‘her’ play. Antony can seem like a baffled old bull, in contrast to Cleopatra’s wit and personality. She’s very mercurial and it can look as if he’s struggling to keep up with her rapid speed of thought and changes of mind. He’s  very different from the Mark Antony in Julius Caesar; in fact, he’s hardly the same person. He’s abandoned his political career for the sake of complete dedication to the  cause of love. But he has great generosity”.

With his long immersion in Shakespeare’s leading roles, Michael is a seasoned exponent in the technique of Shakespearean verse-speaking.

“You know what to do and it’s a pleasure to speak it, but at the same time, you have too watch yourself too. I occasionally hear myself speaking verse on recordings from the 1970s and it sounds mannered and self-consciously musical. Nowadays,we try to make the delivery of the verse as conversational as possible.”

Since Kim and Michael are playing two of history’s most famous lovers, it would be difficult, and not at all desirable, if the actors worked in isolation.

“I think that they spend more time together than any other of Shakespeare’s lovers and yet they spend most of that time quarrelling, mostly about the political situation. How much does she really love Antony and how much is she keeping him on her side politically? She winds him up, she wrong-foots him constantly and yet because he is so besotted by her, he loves it.”

Having been born in Cambridge and read English at the local university, Michael took the traditional actor’s route, ascribing his Upper Second to ingenuity. “I think of myself as a brigand who didn’t work very hard but who still knows how to pass exams.” His early introduction to the RSC in the 1960s was followed by a longer stay during the next decade. “I’m sentimental about that period when I was hugely blessed to work with what was an amazing company of actors.” His writing, he modestly describes as “taking up the slack during the fallow periods.” A number of his books are subtitled A User’s Guide and  are intended to be practical manuals for actors working on plays which Michael knows from first-hand experience. Despite his extensive experience of Shakespeare, is he still making discoveries about the Bard?

“Yes I am. You’ll see a remarkable production that will immediately change your mind about a play which you thought you knew. You can’t say much that is finite about Shakespeare.”

With the stage figuring so strongly on his CV, Michael has found time only for periodic appearances on television and, to his great regret: the cinema as well. Yet in the minds of innumerable Star Wars enthusiasts around the world Michael will always be cherished for his brief appearance in the third film The Return of the Jedi. This association is the cause of some mixed feelings in Michael.

“I look at it now and I think I overact horribly and I can’t even remember the story-line. We all did it for a song but I suppose that it has given we some kind of calling card for movies. Whenever I come out of the Stage Door after a performance, all people would ask about was Star Wars. Nowadays, there’s less of that and more about The Iron Lady.”

Michael is referring to his recent role as Labour Leader Michael Foot opposite Meryl Streep’s Margaret Thatcher.

“The record shows that he was a hopeless candidate taking o Mrs. Thatcher at the 1983 General Election. But Foot was also a remarkable man and he is the only critical voice in the film. When we shot the scenes in the House of Commons, there was Meryl Streep surrounded by fifteen stalwart British actors playing the tories and here was I on the opposite side, with only the extras for company. I’m glad to have played that lone voice; I think that a lot of us are still traumatised by Margaret thatcher.”

Perhaps Michael takes most pride in his co-founding of the English Shakespeare Company in the 1980s when he teamed up with the ebullient, somewhat maverick figure of director Michael Bogdanov.

“In retrospect, I’m most struck by the sheer bravura and unlikeliness of it. It’s given me a fund of remarkable stories to dine out on, particularly about some of the scrapes which we got into. Yet at the same time we also succeeded in turning a lot of young actors, who might have drifted off elsewhere, into Classical actors. And I see the influence of the ESC everywhere, wherever Shakespeare is done in belt and braces, whenever the productions are irrelevant and joyful.”

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