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Michael Pennington discusses his lifelong obsession with Shakespeare as he brings King Lear to Oxford

Oxford Times, Katherine MacAlister, 21st October 2016

Michael Pennington sees his relationship with Shakespeare as “like a long marriage, you need a break every now and again.”

But despite flirtations with TV and films, and a more passionate affairs with the likes of Chekhov, Ibsen and Coleman, the 74 yea-old has returned time and time again to The Bard.

“Only the passing of time is against me now so when I run out of steam I will stop, but that hasn’t happened yet and I am too immersed in King Lear to think about anything else. But I don’t find the tragedies physically or mentally tiring. It’s my job even if Lear is an immense part and I still seem to have the energy.”

His two year fight to bring his Lear adaption over here from New York, was more exhausting, but his battle has finally paid off with a ten week tour already on the road. The rave reviews are already preceding it, Pennington said to be ‘simply the best’ before it even leaves Northampton.

But then having spent a lifetime perfecting the part, so he should be, something he acknowledges himself. “I am much more confident now. I have a lot of experience and know what I’m doing. I cannot deny that Shakespeare has been a big part of my life”

It is however a total coincidence that Michael Pennington’s Lear is on tour during this, the Bard’s 400 centenary year. “I don’t think t does us any harm though,” he chuckles.

“They do say you should play Hamlet in your 30s, Macbeth in your 60s and Lear in your 70s, so it’s all going to plan,” he adds.

“And considering I first played a spear carrier at the RSC in 1964 on the 400th anniversary of his birth and now here I am on the 400 anniversary of his death playing Lear it’s all rather pleasing.”

So how does he get into a part like King Lear? “It’s like cooking a stew very slowly. You start planning it and thinking about it, learning your lines, noticing things that are applicable in the news, watching people around you, especially the elderly or anyone with dementia or Alzheimer's. The quote

‘Humanity must perforce prey on itself

Like monsters of the deep,’ applies everywhere.

“And soon it takes over your life because Lear is all around you, but it’s very gradual. As an actor you are immersed but aware of what is going on around you so it’s a very schizophrenic existence. You have to be open and receptive.

“Unlike Edwin Booth (a famous 19th-century American Shakespearean actor) who would emerge from playing Lear and disappear down the river still shouting his lines and having to be brought home by his son. That is the very polar opposite of what I do.”

And yet King Lear is a famously brutal and depressing play?

“I always think it’s like going to watch someone singing the blues and I defy anyone to leave without feeling uplifted because the language is so poetic. It’s Shakespeare at the top of his game. T’s exciting not depressing, even if it is a beast of a play.”

Not making any concession to his age, Pennington does however concede that he hasn’t toured like this since the 1980s when he started the English Shakespeare Company,winding it down eventually six years later “because of sheer exhaustion.

“The RSC and National weren’t touring enough so unless you went to Stratford or London you didn’t go to see the big Shakespeare productions. We saw a gap in the market and acted on it.”

Before New York Pennington last played Edgar in Lear at the RSC with Donald Sinden, “so I had to learn the part all over again so it is always a lovely surprise to get a second shot at it.”

It was however Macbeth which is responsible for Pennington’s enduring love story with Shakespeare, his unwitting mother taking her 11-year-old son to see a production which “signed the deal for life.”

So what’s the attraction? “They are the most wonderful adventure stories which is why people come back to see them again and again.”

And will his Shakespeare diet vary? “I will play Lear for as long as they want me to but after that I might need a lie down and a rest,” he chuckles, “or maybe a bit part in a movie, that would be nice.”

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