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He’s a Guide to Fellow Shakespeareans

WSJ.com, 19th February 2014

Joanne Kaufman

With his red sneakers, loose-fitting trousers and scruffy beard, Michael Pennington looked rather like a vagrant as he walked through a gentrifying neighborhood here.

But perhaps that was just his way of getting into character; Mr Pennington, 70, is playing a homeless man, an elderly imperious fellow down on his luck and down on his daughters, in the Theatre for a New Audience’s production of ‘King Lear,’ directed by Arin Arbus. Currently in previews, it opens March 27.

Mr Pennington isn’t exactly a household in the U.S., Except perhaps to those ‘Star Wars’ obsessives who send fan mail hailing his performance as imperial officer Moff Jerjerrod, commanding officer of the Death Star, in ‘Return of the Jedi.’ But in his native England he’s an acclaimed classical actor whose many stage credits include leading roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company - among them Angelo and the Duke in ‘Measure for Measure,’ the title roles in ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Timon of Athens’, star turns in ‘The Madness of George III,’ ‘The Master Builder’ and ‘The Dance of Death.’ He also frequently tours in his one-man show ‘Sweet William,’ a tribute to Stratford-upon-Avon’s native son.

“Michael is brilliant - emotionally, technically and intellectually.” Patrick Stewart said. Ian McKellen, meanwhile, described Mr. Pennington as “one of theatre’s matchless treasures. His acting style is modest and detailed, supported by intelligence and unrivalled experience.”

“Brooklyn audiences are lucky to be the first to see his long-awaited King Lear,” Mr McKellen added. “I’ll be among them.”

Mr Pennington is also an impresario (from 1986 to 1994 he was co-head of the English Shakespeare Company), a scholar of the Bard, and the author of books like Twelfth Night: A User’s Guide; and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A User’s Guide.’ The pages of ‘Hamlet: A User’s Guide’ was apparently well-thumbed by Simon Russell Beale and Jude Law during their respective stints as the prince of Denmark. “They told me how helpful it was, though maybe they were just being nice to me,” said Mr Pennington over a cappuccino last week. “I made them swear on their swords that they actually read it.”

The road to his current undertaking was lined with ambivalence. “If you do a lot of Shakespeare, ‘Lear’ is something you’re supposed to want to do,” Mr Pennington said in his flexible, silvery voice. “So you have to work out in your mind whether you really want to do it and if you have anything particular to bring to it other than what other people have brought to it, or if it’s just something that lies in your path,”

He felt no particular yearning until half-a-dozen years ago, when he played Richard Strauss in Ronald Harwood’s play ‘Collaboration.’ “Strauss isn’t a particularly Lear-like character, but he is an old man who regrets much of what he’s done.” Mr Pennington said. “I was having breakfast one morning, and I threw my towel down and said ’I want to do “Lear” now, right now.’ It was a startling thing, so sort of thespy, but I thought ‘I could do it now.’”

The wheels were set in motion when, in 2010, Mr Pennington came to New York with the two-hander “Love is My Sin,” an adaptation of select Shakespeare sonnets assembled and directed by Peter Brook and produced here by Theatre for a New Audience. At the opening-night party Mr Pennington met Ms Arbus, TFANA’s associate artistic director, and was immediately intrigued. “I’m not particularly interested in talking about Shakespeare to too many people.” he said. “But we went to brunch and had a really interesting time.”

Eighteen months ago, the two arranged a weeklong “Lear” exploration. “We sat around the table and went at the play without prejudice so that at the end of the time we could say ‘this isn’t going to work,’ Mr Pennington said. “Well, I had the time of my life, and I said ‘I really want to do this.’”

The only  child of a lawyer and a housewife, Mr Pennington was 11 when, unwillingly, he saw his first Shakespeare play. “My parents said, ‘You have to come and see this.’ Not because they were particularly keen on it - they just thought it was part of my education. They picked ‘Macbeth,’ which, as it happened, was a very good choice.

“The effect it had on mw was completely visceral,” he continued, “A lot of it had to do with the Tarantino-like theatricality of that production: a lot of blood, a lot of ghost effects. But there was something about the language.

“Afterwards I went home, pulled a volume of Shakespeare off the shelf and started reading it out load.”

Thus his course was set. “I knew what I wanted to do and never thought about anything else,” said Me Pennington, who acknowledges that he’s been less than canny about the management of his career. It was down to Jeremy Irons and him for the leading male role in ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman,’ Mr Pennington claimed, and “I backed out of the race because I was offered ‘Hamlet’ at the RSC.”

“I didn’t stop doing Shakespeare and go to do something else like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen,” he added. “The  proper thing is to leave and come back with a certain reputation and more power. Somehow I missed a beat in that.”

Mr Pennington began writing his Shakespeare guides as a way of recycling when he terms his spare information. “I’ve done these plays so often, and yet there are things I haven’t been able to use. I know stuff about how the plays seem to work best.

“I know  that ‘Coriolanus’ is difficult because the battle scene is at the beginning, rather at the end where it usually is - thus you’re exhausted after half an hour. So how are you going to get yourself up when you have the whole play ahead of your? I know that ‘Hamlet’ has various problems of logic from one scene to another that you had better be aware of. I don’t have solutions, just guarded recommendations.”

Alas, there is yet no ‘King Lear: A User’s Guide,’ but Mr Pennington seems well versed in the challenge of the role. “You have such a little window with Lear,” he said. “You’ve got to be convincingly enough that age - Shakespeare gives the character’s age as ‘four score and upward’ - but you also have to have the energy and the memory for the part. And that’s always been the problem. There are actors, brilliant actors, who have played him a bit too late when they didn’t have the physical stamina.”

Mr Pennington doesn’t have to have any such concerns. “I feel about 50,” he said. “I get tired washing the dishes or walking to the corner shop, but I never get tired off acting.”

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