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Michael Pennington Interviewed by Phil Penfold (taken from West Yorkshire Playhouse web site September 2003)

This year alone he's seen his latest book published (he's currently working on the next), he's done an extensive UK tour of Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman, he's currently in rehearsals for The Madness of George III, and he's just finished playing Doctor Dorn in The Seagull (opposite Iain Glen), which was one of the undisputed sell-out hits of the Edinburgh Festival.

Oh, and he also managed to direct A Midsummer Night's Dream for the Regents Park Open Air Theatre. How, you wonder, does he manage to fit it all in? "Recently", he smiles, "it's been a lot of luck - and a lot of forward planning. It has, I agree, been a remarkable year."

And then (he's unwinding after a day's Madness rehearsal) he reveals that while he was playing the last week of The Seagull in Edinburgh, he was also starting the first week's preparation for the West Yorkshire Playhouse - Birmingham Rep. co-production. How the heck did he pull that one off? Pennington grins and says: "well, I'd catch the 8.20 a.m. flight down from Scotland to Leeds, and put in a full morning's work, then I'd get the early afternoon flight back to Edinburgh to be in time for the evening show. But, as a precaution, I left my own car at the airport in Leeds, should the airline let me down, and I had to drive back instead.....no contingency was left uncovered.

"But, thank God, fortune smiled on me, and it all went swimmingly - I'd grab a quick nap on the plane, and that was that. Except, well, on the very last day, the fire alarms went off at the airport, and delayed me just a little - I think it was God looking down on me and wagging his finger, and saying 'Pennington, you got away with it this time, but......'" PART 2 TOMORROW!

15 September 2003


Part 2 of Michael Pennington Interview

Michael Pennington is one of the most respected and admired stage actors of his generation. And yet he has never actively courted wider recognition on film or television. It has avoided him. Or maybe he has avoided it? Which is possibly why, without the burden of carrying a screen persona around with him, he has been able, chameleon-like, to slip into every theatre role he chooses. And his choice over the last few years has been to "Hoover-up a lot of playwrights with whom I have not, hitherto, been acquainted". In 2001, he performed in his first David Mamet (at the Crucible in Sheffield), and Borkman was his first Ibsen ("not really a playwright I enjoy that much, but Borkman is very special and quite different to the rest of his pieces") and The Madness of George III will be his first foray into Alan Bennett territory. And it's his debut at the WYP. He was last at the Birmingham Rep in, he thinks, "the middle seventies - which is a rather long time to wait for a return booking!"

But why The Madness? Pennington replies simply that he was talking to Ian Brown (the Artistic Director and Chief Executive of WYP) earlier in the year, and pushed the idea that it would be interesting to "mount a major revival of a really strong play, a modern classic, that had not been given the attention, for one reason or another, that it really deserved. Bennett's play has only been done at the National, and then by them on tour, and rarely since, but it wasn't one that I'd initially thought of - it was Ian's clever idea".

16 September 2003    

Part 3 of Michael Pennington Interview

With a large cast, it has proved far beyond the capabilities of commercial companies and regional theatres - until now. The combined forces and resources of the Birmingham Rep. company and that of the WYP make it possible, and Pennington, for one, is delighted. "I think that the combination of the two playhouses for this (and the co-production of A View From The Bridge) is ingenious, and courageous, and a way forward for regional theatres to do things that are really rather special", he says. Brown approached him to play the stricken King, he says, and he agreed with out hesitation. "I think that one of my failings", he says, "is that I am not very good at making choices for myself. I like to be approached with ideas. I'm a bit like the girl in the corner, waiting to be asked to dance!"

He has always been an actor who prepares meticulously. "Ah, research", he says. "Yes, well, I've got a bit of a reputation for doing an avalanche of that. But I have actually got a bit more cagey about that as I grow older. I've read a few books on George III, of course, but I've learned to rely a lot more on what the author says in his script. A very famous director once said to me, after I'd done a lot of reading on a particular character in order to play one role, 'Michael, I don't really care what he might have had for breakfast, you know', and that was a lesson well learned. But.... (he shrugs his shoulders) what we've got here is a very affectionate portrait of the King, and Bennett has very cleverly compressed incidents and episodes of the King's condition over a great many years, into an evening's play. And it's fascinating".

17 September 2003

Why The Madness of George III?

All of this week we have been serialising Phil Penfold’s exclusive interview with the lead actor, Michael Pennington. Parts 1 to 3 are still on the website, here’s Part 4 to complete the in depth look at the busy life of the actor:


He's loving working on The Madness of George III (which is directed by Rachel Kavanaugh) "and I'm growing fonder of the king by the day.  He was a rather remarkable monarch, in that he took a very genuine interest in his subjects and, in effect, was the inventor of the 'Royal Walkabout'.  He'd be out riding somewhere, and thought nothing of popping into one of his subjects' cottages, and talking to them about the weather, the price of turnips, or what their crops were doing.  He was nicknamed 'Farmer George', and one can see why.  He had a very real naturalness, and that was rare, well, unknown, in those days.  I'd call him an 'instinctive democrat', not at all remote, and very approachable.


"And, did you know, he actually got married on the day he met his wife?  An arranged dynastic union, but they fell in love with each other, had fifteen children together (two of whom died in infancy), and were faithful to each other until the day that they died.  And, remember, he lived until his early eighties. They called themselves 'Mr and Mrs King', which was rather sweet. I admire George very much, and all his many idiosyncrasies.  When his doctors gave him medication, for example, he'd always multiply the dose, in the belief that more was a lot better for him than less.  A tumbler instead of a teaspoon.  But above all, I like the way, in spite of all his tribulations, his motto seemed to be 'bugger it, let's get on with it, and go forward!'"


Which, you could say, might be Pennington's own personal motto for life. He has an insatiable energy to turn his hand to new things. Directing the sell-out Dream in Regent's Park was "a totally fresh experience for me, and I couldn't have hoped for a better summer to do outdoor theatre, could I?  I learned an awful lot from that.  Like?  Oh, well, silly things that you don't realise until you do them - in a normal theatre, you can design the lighting plot for the set at any time you want.  In Regent's Park, because it's still daylight until well after nine in the high summer, you have to do all the technical work after then, and you leave the Park, job finished, at dawn.  But then you have to remember that, as the evenings grow longer, the lighting has to come on earlier, and you make adjustments accordingly......it's a lovely experience,  working in that theatre".


After The Madness (as I write) he has "nothing on the horizon at the moment.

Not theatrically.  I'm also doing another book in the A User's Guide To series, and after Hamlet and Twelfth Night, it's A User's Guide to A Midsummer Night's Dream.  And that means going through the text, line by line, and commenting on just about every one of them.  I work on my laptop, I start very early on in the day, and when a play is up and running, it's a nice way to fill in your mornings.  Writing is my, sort of, hobby.  Although (like Trigorin in The Seagull) I also rather enjoy the process of proof-reading, and revising and rewriting.


"Spare time?  Hmmmm.  I like cooking, I like my gardening (and I've got to make over a new garden, because I've just moved to a house in Highgate, with some wonderful views) and that's about it. I don't do anything glamorous, you know, not like Michael Gambon's hobby of repairing of antique clocks. No, I'm a rather boring person, really".


Which is said with complete sincerity.  But is, in fact, about as far from the truth as you can get.

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