King Lear star Michael Pennington talks Shakespeare, schools and Star Wars

The Argus, 29th April 2016, Henry Holloway

There are few figures in the landscape of Shakespeare more massive than actor, director and writer Michael Pennington.

The 72-year-old founded the English Shakespeare Company, is an honorary associate artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company, has appeared on television, in movies and has penned ten books.

He has lived and breathed the theatre for most of his life, and now takes up the titular role in the great tragedy King Lear.

ng This tour marks the first time he has played the role in the UK and is the culmination of his career.


Return to King Lear

The Guide: What is the key to playing a fantastic King Lear?

MP: I am so tempted to say that you have to be born to do it. But you have to be old enough, you have to have the anxieties of the old, you have to be a parent - that is for sure. The famous thing about the part is the exertion of it is quite considerable, and like most big Shakespeare parts there is a lot to remember.  You have to be old enough and also have to have your memory intact, to state the obvious, and you also have to be physically pretty fit. You have to get it in that little window.

How do you prepare?

Mentally, if you do a lot of Shakespeare, like I have done, you are preparing subconsciously to play Lear for a very long time. There is such a specific play which is almost laid out for you if you want to do Shakespeare. You should be playing Hamlet in your 30s, you should be playing Macbeth in your 50s, and then you should be playing Lear in your 70s.

With this production you started out in New York?

I played it with an American cast with Theatre for a New Audience and that went very well. I realised ‘Oh gosh I can do this, I can play the part’. We tried to import that production into England but it was just too expensive to import the American actors into England, so for the past year or two I have been trying to set something like this tour up. I love touring and I have not done it for a very long time. In the eighties I ran a company which toured about 50 weeks a year but doing big Shakespeares is very out of fashion now. It is an old model which I respond to very much and think very important, otherwise many people will not have a chance to see the best Shakespeare.

You have obviously been involved in Shakespeare your whole life, can you pinpoint the moment you were first introduced to his work?

Easy. I was taken when I was 11, very much against my will, to see a production of Macbeth at the Old Vic in London by my parents. I did not want to go, all I was interested in then was Tottenham Hotsour. My parents thought it would be good for me as part of my general education. It was a beautiful production, very Quentin Tarantino, it was quite violent with lots of blood and all ghosts flying around with a very good display and all that, I was completely riveted by from the moment the lights went down and I was on the edge of my seat. It was a complete Road to Damascus experience and I thought this was all I wanted to do in my life. Part of it was all the obvious theatricality of t, but part was the language which just hit me in the solar plexus which was not just beautiful but powerful. Now that was more years ago than I care to remember, but that is why I am here now. For the next five or six years I demanded to see every Shakespeare play I could and by the time I left school I must have nearly seen them all. It was mania.

How do you think youngsters are best introduced to Shakespeare?

It is really quite an issue this. Every time the national curriculum is planned there is a great debate about whether Shakespeare is still relevant to young people and lots of people very sincerely think he is not. He is politically quite incorrect, the world he talks about and language he uses is very out of date. Then there is equally vociferous who believe it can only be an enrichment, but the key is how it is taught. Even after the experience I had when I was 11, when I came to study the same play when I was 16 it nearly killed it for me because it was just so boringly taught in school. You just sat there and the teachers did most of the talking and reading.  If he is going to be on the curriculum kids have to be able to have the chance to get up and do it themselves, so they have the physical and emotional sensation of reading those lines. The moment Shakespeare is taught as an academic subject it dies.

Are you still discovering new things about the plays?

You change your mind all the time. I used to think it should all be done in historical costume, then I thought it should only be done in modern dress. Then because I went through a long period at the Royal Shakespeare Company I thought there was a very certain way of speaking the verse, it is just down to what makes sense to you. Shakespeare wrote for an audience which was incredibly diverse, it included people who were highly intellectual and could speak Latin and also whose who could hardly read at all. He had to find a way of writing which all those different sorts of people could respond. By the same token there are about 150 ways of doing King Lear or any of the other plays. The proof is always in the pudding. I have no particular loyalties or dogma or about it anymore, I just suck it and see.

One of your most famous roles on film is acting alongside Darth Vader on the Death Star in the opening scene of Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. How did that come about?

I had just been playing Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company, which was quite a big moment. People always ask you after that ‘what is your next great mountain yo are going to climb? And literally the first thing I was offered was just a week on Star Wars. I think my agent just suggested me to a casting director. It was not a big part, but I did it and did not think much about it. Then in the past twenty years the films have been rereleased and there is a huge  renaissance of interest in them and I  get this huge mailbag even now. Usually they are from kids who have downloaded pictures on the Internet and want them signed. Sometimes they say ‘please do not make them out to me personally’ so they obviously want to sell it. But it was a very small moment in my career but it has a big impact on the amount of post I get. It is not a very good performance, I am not proud of it, but it is part of rich tapestry I guess.