First in New York, now in York for Michael Pennington’s regal role in Shakespeare’s King Lear

The Press, York, 23rd May 2016

Michael Pennington has played Lear in Now York. Now this great Shakespearean actor can be seen in “the greatest of all Shakespeare’s dramas” in York.

From Wednesday, the 72-year-old Pennington will be appearing as the ageing tyrant in the Royal & Derngate, Northampton touring production of King Lear at the Grand Opera House as the national programme to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death gathers pace.

“I started my career at Stratford in 1964, where my first job for the RSC was as the 37th soldier from the left, on the 400th anniversary of his birth; now I find myself celebrating the 400th year since his death, so that has a symmetry to it,” says Pennington, a four-time Olivier Award nominee who co-founded the English Shakespeare Company.

Pennington has written a book, King Lear in Brooklyn, about his first experience of playing Lear as the only Englishman in an otherwise all-American production at the Shakespeare Centre in New York in 2014, as he gives his insight into the punishing mental and physical impact the role can have on those who are brave enough to take on the challenge.

Playing Lear is the ultimate role for veteran actors. “It always ends up with actors saying how difficult it is to carry (the dead) Cordelia and they keep saying how wearing it is to play King Lear,” notes Pennington, who nevertheless will be on stage for around seven hours on Wednesday in the matinee and evening performances and likewise next Saturday.

King Lear, should you need a quick refreshed course, is the epic tragic and morality tale where Lear’s fateful decision to divide his kingdom tears his family apart, sparks catastrophic war and destroys all he has. Driven from his home, Lear endures madness and suffering as he battles a great storm. Yet with madness he finds reason and through his suffering a better world emerges.

Returning to Lear in 2016 has been “like doing the same dance in a different costume,” suggests Pennington. He was never going to merely reprise his American role. “One of the skills that an actor has is that there are many ways to skin a cat…and the one thing I didn’t want to do was to be like an opera singer jetting in and doing a performance as a kindness.” says Pennington.

Max (director Max Webster) and I spent several days together before we started, and considering we’re 40 years apart, we had many common points of thinking. It’s a simple story to tell; 11 scenes, and you know what story you’re telling whether it’s in doublet and hose or modern dress, and I completely agreed with his general approach, coming from Theatre de Complicite and his Lecoq training in Paris. I found none of that difficult.

Pennington says acting can be hard work, “but that’s the funny thing about being an actor: it’s not about putting your own emotions into it, but promoting emotions on those who are watching. It’s far better to make the audience cry than yourself.”

Pennington’s passion for Shakespeare and the resonance of his morality tales is unstinting, as he recalls being stage struck by encountering a Shakespeare play at the age of 11, but “I was still bored by the way it was taught at school”. “All you have to do is give children the physical sensation of the words, and the only way to do that is to take them to a good production,” he says.

“Much against my will, I was taken to Macbeth when all I was interested in was Tottenham Hotspur. Suddenly there was this blood-curdling scream, and this man emerged covered in blood, as the three weird sisters came out from behind a rock, and I found it completely riveting.” Pennington promptly bought the play and enacted it all again for his parents.

“It was something to do with the blood and guts and gore but also the language,” he says. “It was sort of like discovering rock’n’roll!”

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