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Michael Pennington talks sweet Shakespeare

“It’s very moving when a writer unites people who don’t have a language in common.”

British actor-director Michael Pennington has devoted his life to theatre, especially to Shakespeare works. So, it isn’t by chance that he was invited to present his one-man show Sweet William at the Buenos Aires Shakespeare Festival, which closed last Saturday, and at the first Uruguayan Shakespeare Festival, which kicked off yesterday in Montevideo.

In his first visit to South America, the founder of the English Shakespeare Company talked to the Herald at the British Council (one of the sponsors of the Shakespeare Festival along with the British Embassy and the Buenos Aires City Government) about his passion for theatre and acting.

Buenos Aires Herald, 4th March 2015, Luciana Ekdesman

Did you enjoy the Buenos Aires Shakespeare Festival?

I can say that you have a wonderful festival here. I know it’s very young, but what Patricio (Orozco, it’s founder) has done is amazing. I don’t know of any other festival that has a Shakespeare walk, s Shakespeare bicycle-ride or a Shakespeare football match. This is great!

What do you know about the theatre scene in Argentina?

I know that theatre is terrific here. We don’t know that in Europe. We haven’t come much to Argentina, it’s such an expensive business to bring a company, so we are a little ignorant in the UK. I walked down Corrientes and all is theatre, theatre, theatre.

Sweet William is a biography of Shakespeare narrated through fragments from his plays. How did you go about the selection?

I didn’t choose them because I like them in particular, but because they contribute to the narrative of the biography. But, it’s also a form of biography about me. I tell how I was involved in this in the first place. When I was 11 years old, I was brought out to the theatre by my parents, because they thought it was good for me. I’m sure that those who watch it come out with the sense that Shakespeare is someone who got into every part of my life. Whether I meant it or not, I’ve simply been involved with this writer for a half-century. I’ve been lucky enough to play, I think, all the parts I wanted to play, except for Romeo.

When did you realize that theatre was to be your career?

At 11 years old. That day, Macbeth completely changed my life, like a flash of lightning. I was very excited. Not only the play, but it was also the language that caught me.

You also wrote a one-man play about Chekhov. What similarities and differences do you find between them?

It’s very difficult to do because Chekhov wrote four major plays, all od them on much the same sort of subject, set in the same sort of place with the same sort of people. Shakespeare wrote 37 plays about very different worlds and people.

I don’t think that Shakespeare’s influenced modern writers, and I don’t think quite in the same way as Chekhov. Everybody admires Shakespeare, he’s a spotlight figure, but Chekhov, Beckett or Pinter are much more models for modern playwrights in Europe than Shakespeare. How can you write like Shakespeare? They have to write in verse for a start.

Although playwrights aim to big subjects like Shakespeare, the realism, naturalism of Chekhov, in that sense, is more important. The similarity between them is that you don’t sense the writer in the play. The writer moves himself or herself, they never tell you what to think or feel, they allow you to decide for yourself. Some writers put their own ego first, Shakespeare and Chekhov are both geniuses.

In the UK, are you conscious that Shakespeare is such a universal figure, admired worldwide?

Well, in one way yes and in one way no. The parallel with Chekhov, yes, I noticed the Russians are very amused for the English’s love for Chekhov. To the Russians, Chekhov is good, but when they direct Chekhov they are much more experimental with his plays than we are.  In Western Europe we are rather respectful for Chekhov. I think the same problem is true in England with Shakespeare: we take him for granted, he is ours, we’ve grown up with him. I’m always amazed when I travel to other countries and I find that he is so much revered, because after all, it’s a matter of translation. How many people are here who don’t speak perfect English? How do they know how good he is? So I’m always surprised, but I haven’t got an answer for it yet. We love Shakespeare like a member of our family.

Are you working on any special event for next year for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death?

No, I’m not. For sure what I’ve got is this show. I don’t change it very much. Any excuse to celebrate Shakespeare is taken. There’s not much I can do about Shakespeare. I would like to come back here as well. It’s a wonderful privilege to perform in other scenes. It’s very moving when you feel this writer is uniting people who don’t have a language in common, that feels amazing. As long as my memory and health help, I’ll keep doing it.

Do you like any Argentine writer in particular?

Borges, of course, but that’s it. I’m very ignorant.

Would you like to return to the big screen.

Yes, I miss that really. It’s a matter of time. It sounds as if I’ve made a decision to do theatre. I’m not pretty much conscious of it. From time to time, managers have said to me that to do movies I don’t have to do theatre for a year and I’d eventually do a movie. I can never wait. There was always too much interest in working in the theatre. There was a moment, around the 1980s, when I was very close to getting the main part in the movie The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981). Later, Jeremy Irons played in it along with Meryl Streep, but I was out of town. So this was a classic situation for a young actor  - not so young. Somebody said to me, “Actually, when you look back at the end of your life, what’s you be most proud of: the fact that you did a movie or playing Hamlet in Stratford?”  And I don’t regret it at all. It changed my life.

But, do you still have regrets about your decision?

I regret it in some ways because the movies are the great invention of the 20th century. I love them and understand them too. I really enjoyed doing Michael Foot’s part in The Iron Lady, it was a few days only. It was a pleasure to work with Streep, she is marvellous. I would like to do more, but I think it’s too late. I can play a grandfather (laughs).

You never know … Christopher Plummer won an Oscar some years ago (for Beginners, 2010).

Yes, he is a very good example. You never know …

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