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Pennington back in fold


Newcastle Journal 15th October 1999


Michael Pennington is back in the fold of the RSC and got the company out of a bit of a hole when he agreed to play the title role in ‘Timon of Athens’. Not too long ago, though, he was revelling in being a thorn in their side.


Michael Pennington was at the theatre – it was actually the interval during a performance of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ – when he got an urgent phone call.


It was Greg Doran, associate director of the RSC, and he had a serious problem. It had just been agreed between himself and Alan Bates, some weeks into rehearsal, that Bates should withdraw from the role.


He had been ill, Timon was a demanding part to play and Bates was already committed to the equally demanding role of Antony opposite Frances de la Tour’s Cleopatra.


“Would you be interested in playing Timon of Athens?” asked Doran (in his account of events). “We are already two weeks into rehearsals, I’m afraid.”


“It’s not impossible,” replied Pennington coolly. As long as he could move one or two things around, and not simply mimic Bate’s interpretation of the part, he would give it a shot. And now, if Greg didn’t mind, he had to get back into the auditorium to watch a friend who had just taken over one of the roles in the Lloyd Webber musical.


So it was that Michael Pennington and his last minute heroics became one of the talking points of the new RSC season.


“He was absolutely amazing,” recalls the director. “There came a point, two weeks in, where we could have stuck to the original press night and previews because he was so fantastic. There was a point where I stopped saying, ‘Michael is very good considering….’ and just started to say that he was very good.”


The modest, quietly spoken Pennington remembers things slightly differently, insisting that he still had three weeks left in which to master the part. “We did cancel a couple of previews and put the press night back.


“It was still very loose when I joined the cast and I think there’s always some sort of unspoken agreement that if something like this happens, things can be reworked to a certain extent. Greg was very good and sat down with me and said it was all up for negotiation.”


The thing about ‘Timon of Athens’, an unfamiliar Shakespeare play which doesn’t sell itself in the way of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ or ‘Twelfth Night’, is that much of the burden falls on the actor playing the title role.


Nobody could sleepwalk through it as a top flight actor could, at a pinch, if playing Bottom or Malvolio with oodles of easy laughs to smooth the way.


Timon is on stage virtually all the time so there is a prodigious number of lines to learn.


Midway through the play, the naively generous Timon undergoes a complete personality change when he realises those he has helped are prepared to cold shoulder him now he is no longer rich.


Consequently the actor playing Timon spends much of the latter part of the play half naked and covered in grime and dirt, and railing at the world from a hole in the ground. Take that on board and you can understand the note of temerity in Greg Doran’s voice when he made that desperate phone call.


Pennington was helped by familiarity with the play, if at some years remove. “I was in the last Timon the RSC did on the main stage in 1965. Paul Scofield did it. Goodness that was 34 years ago. I was in it as a spear carrier.


“I became fascinated by the play even then. It is a wonderful, neglected piece with some of the most glorious language in it. I knew even then I would like to play Timon some day and this was too good a chance to miss, although I decided I would do it as long as I wasn’t going to make a fool of myself.


“Funnily enough, I thought I knew it rather better than I actually did. I remembered the shape of it rather than the details and, as soon as we started rehearsing, my memories of that earlier production started to fade away.


“Part of this game is killing your idols and finding your own way with a piece of work, and that is what started to happen to me.”


So Michael Pennington, one-time spear carrier on the edge of a stage dominated by the great Paul Scofield, made the role his own, going on to win thoroughly respectable reviews.


“A stirring performance that makes you yearn one day to see Pennington’s Lear,” wrote Michael Billington in The Guardian.


Michael Pennington is, of course, a very fine actor, a Premiership replacement for Alan Bates whose name is better known only because of his films.


After his début RSC season in 1964-66, Pennington returned regularly between 1974 and 1981 playing  leading roles in ‘Love’s Labours Lost, ‘Romeo & Juliet, ‘King Lear’, ‘ Measure for Measure’ and the title role in ‘Hamlet’ in 1980/81.


But he came to many people’s notice when he founded the English Shakespeare Company with Michael Bogdanov, bringing Shakespeare to Sunderland Empire in the early days with an ambitious, Falklands War-inspires production of ‘The Wars of the Roses’ fashioned from Shakespeare’s Henry plays.


Explaining his motivation for establishing a theatre company, with all the heartache that involves, he recalls a time when he would rather have done anything in the world other than Shakespeare at Stratford.


“When this came up I didn’t hesitate. It feels a lot like coming home. But I can remember beginning to have dreams of being stuck in a Stratford season I never agreed to be in and couldn’t get out of.”


At about that time it dawned on him and Michael Bogdanov, another boat-rocking figure who had done good work with the RSC, that the Stratford-based outfit – its Newcastle residency aside – didn’t seem to be fulfilling its obligations as a national company.


The English Shakespeare Company proved a point, winning new audiences for its exciting though tightly budgeted productions of Shakespeare, and Michael Pennington showed he could be director and impresario as well as actor.


But nobody is sorry that he has thrown in his lot once again with the RSC.


Shakespeare’s ‘Timon of Athens’ is not the greatest play in the canon but Michael Pennington’s performance in the title role is one of the best of the 1999 season.



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