Cambridge News, 15th June 2016, Lydia Fallon

Michael Pennington has been asked about the wonders of Shakespeare rather a lot lately. Perhaps unsurprisingly given it’s the Bard’s 400th anniversary year. But it’s a question even the esteemed - not to mention, wonderfully eloquent - Shakespearean actor struggles to find the right words to answer.  

“I get asked ‘Why are we still doing his plays/’, and it’s very difficult to say, because you can’t really put Shakespeare in a nutshell,” he says. “This year we’ll have plenty of people trying to sum Shakespeare up in a sentence, but I just can’t do that.”

What he can express in words, though, is the enormous impact the playwright has had on his own life and career, a love affair which began over 60 years ago when Michael first encountered Macbeth aged 11. “I was taken to Macbeth, very unwillingly, but those two hours set the course for my life. I was absolutely thrilled by it: I was thrilled by the story; I was thrilled by the blood, horror and violence of the play, but, above all, the effect of the language on me was like the effect of rock and roll,” he remembers.

“Something happened that evening and from then on I never doubted that A: I wanted to be an actor, and B: that I wanted to do as much Shakespeare as I possibly could.”

He’s not looked back since. In a distinguished 50-year career, the four-time Olivier Award nominee, who also co-founded the English Shakespeare Company, has earned a reputation as one of the most prolific and talented Shakespearean actors of his generation, putting his own inimitable spin on some of the Bard’s most iconic characters at theatres all over the world.

Lucky for us, Michael’s next stop will be right here in his old student stomping ground. And the role? Ageing tyrant King Lear, perhaps the most iconic character of them all. “It’s very exciting,” he enthuses. “When you do a lot of Shakespeare, people expect you to play certain parts at certain times. I played Hamlet in the 80s, Macbeth in the 90s, and people kept asking when I was going to do Lear. I think you’re aware with Lear, it’s suppose to be at the peak of your career - and perhaps a certain implication it should be the last thing you do. You ideally have to be my age, physically strong, but also have your memory intact to remember it all… so I feel like it’s come at the right time.”

It’s the second time he’ll have taken on the part, this production coming just two years after Michael played Lear to great acclaim on Broadway, and the actor admits to feeling very lucky at getting two bites at the cherry. “Ever since I was in New York I’ve been trying to get it set up here, and finally it has been. It’s a completely different production, so I have the rare privilege of being able to visit this part for a second time, which is very unusual these days.”

Lear, for many actors, is the apex. The pinnacle. The role to end all roles. Many stage greats have attempted it over the years, to varying degrees of success. How has Michael approached it? “I have to see him from his own point of view,” he explains. “You could look at him from the outside and think you’re a bully, a tyrant, or at the very least a fool. You’re overbearing, arrogant, terrible temper, hate not having your own way. That’s the judgement people would pass on him, but at the same time this is a character who learns an enormous amount, and I see him as someone who is making preposterous mistakes in life, but gradually learns to think in a different way and live his life in a different way.

“Shakespeare often sets up a very unsympathetic character at the start of the play, such as Richard III or Macbeth, and then you begin to see the play from his point of view and you end up being very upset by his tragedy. It’s a great trick Shakespeare pulled over and over again; he changes your mind about someone.”

Michael believes this interpretation of the Bard’s great tragedy, which is directed by Old Vic Theatre associate director Max Webster, is likely to confound expectations too. “ There are two kinds of people in the world, those who have seen King Lear before and know what it is about, and those who don’t at all, and we’re aiming, rather successfully I think, at both groups,” he says.

“The production is very direct; it’s not in modern dress, or anything like that, and there’s no rock music, but it is a very fast, energetic and passionate version of the play. The play has a reputation as being rather remote, because it is seen as having nothing to do with modern life, but I see the reverse of being true: it absolutely speaks to a modern audience.”

He was a prophet as much as anything else. The man was living in the 1600s, but there’s so much we can all relate to today…

“Take what happens to Lear, it is what we’d call these days dementia, and Shakespeare, long before the invention of neuroscience, understood this distressing illness: the curtains part and it’s the person you remember and then suddenly they close again. For him to have sensed that and observed it is absolutely astounding.”

The best, and perhaps only, way to experience the genius of the man is, Michael believes, live on stage, rather than from a dusty old textbook. “There is a big controversy about how to present Shakespeare to young people. Some people think he’s out of date, politically incorrect, the language too difficult, and it’s no use to kids. “I take the opposite view, but what I do know is there’s no point sitting in a classroom being told about it, you have to do it on your feet, as if you’re in a theatre and not in a study. What you have that excitement in your gut, it will stay with you for life.”

It’s certainly stayed with Michael who, even after 52 years, still adores the buzz of performing on stage every night. “I loved it more and more the older I get,” he laughs. “The live theatre event is always what has attracted me; it’s completely different every night, and for me, it’s the thing I enjoy doing most in the world. It’s my breath…”

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