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Studies In Misogyny

Michael Pennington talks to David Jays about the parts he has been playing this season for the Peter Hall Company at the Old Vic

Plays International, October 1997

The reasons an actor likes a character are very different from the reasons real people like real people,’ muses Michael Pennington. He has spent most of the year embodying the unlikable, as a pillar of Peter Hall’s season at the Old Vic. First came icy politician Henry Trebell in Granville Barker’s Waste; then mediocre user Trigorin in The Seagull; finally, in The Provok’d Wife, Sir John Brute, perfect name for a flailing bully.

As a collection of roles, it encapsulates Pennington on the cusp of change, abandoning his strain of romantic leading roles for unsentimental character actor. His RSC Hamlet was described by Michael Billington as ‘sharp-brained and sweet-souled’, and the manipulative family tree of kings and princes he played in the ESC’s ‘Wars of the Roses’ cycle were dewed with fallen-angel grace. In middle age (he’s just become a grandfather), we increasingly see a harder actor, unindulgent. When I arrive, he is bellowing avuncularly into his mobile, but his narrow feline eyes are shaped for sidelong glances, made for mistrust.

‘I’ve always been trying to prove something quite simple,’ Pennington says as we sit in a little grey office at the Old Vic, ‘that the only way to survive as an actor, if you’re going to work in the theatre, is by demonstrating that you’re a character actor. I suppose I had the lineaments for a Hamlet or a Romeo, but even then I was looking for the unexpected bits of casting.’

A couple of years ago, he decisively marked this shift, when he played Claudius to Stephen Dillane’s Hamlet. ‘I loved playing Claudius,’ he says. ‘When you’re young, Hamlet is such a vivid, identifiable character. The problems of middle-aged guilt are rather more sympathetic when you’re Claudius’ age, and if you’re lucky enough to be with a director (Peter Hall) stubborn enough to leave the play uncut, you have a good time as Claudius. Though at the end, of course, there’s the rather sloppily written last scene, where everything gives way to the overwhelming interest of Hamlet.’

Slagging off the Bard may be blasphemy, but when it comes to Hamlet, Pennington has written the book – his Hamlet: A User’s Guide is now in paperback and will be succeeded by a volume on Twelfth Night when the Old Vic season ends. ‘Writing the book, I kept having the slight temptation to debunk it, to point out what was perhaps structurally uneasy. Rather like defacing an icon, you feel it should be done in some way.’

Perhaps Pennington has always seen himself as someone taking a crayon to icons, an Establishment renegade. ‘I went to public school,’ he admits with perfect public school diffidence, ‘but I was swimming against the tide. I was forever putting on scabrous cabarets, publishing obscene feuilletons and alternative school magazines, growing my hair down to my shoulders, which in 1957 was not common.’ After school came Cambridge, when lectures were unattended in favour of fervent theatrical activity.

Such blazing endeavour has been a constant in his career – acting, directing (productions of Twelfth Night in Britain, Tokyo, Chicago), writing and running the ESC with Michael Bogdanov. To the roles in the Old Vic rep, he also added a reprise of his one-man shown about Anton Chekhov. ‘I’m fundamentally very lazy,’ he suggests, unconvincingly. ‘I don’t just say that for effect – obviously, there’s some kind of guilt that makes me work that hard. But it’s only under certain circumstances. The times when I’ve found myself in a repertory company are contexts in which the invitation to overwork is just sitting there. It’s also a measure of enjoyment – this has been such fun. If it hadn’t been, I wouldn’t have wanted to do more that the bare minimum.’

Pennington’ voice is an astoundingly flexible tool, capable of precise modulation. There is a constant stream of voice-over work that butters his bread and trades off his air of informed authority – you would certainly buy a documentary from this man. As a febrile Jaffeir in Venice Preserv’d at the National (1984, with McKellan and Lapotaire), he flung Otway’s anguished rhetoric to the skies. He can be silver-tongued or seedy: both for his Raskolnikov in Yuri Lyubimov’s acclaimed production of Crime and Punishment.

As for the roles at the Vic, he describes them as ‘studies of misogyny’. In The Provok’d Wife, he perfected a sordid stagger as boozy Brute attempts a disgusting search for clammy comfort. ‘A classic example of male insecurity taken to extremes,’ considers the actor. ‘A big baby. A big baffled baby. I got the idea he was like a certain kind of English public schoolboy whose life had gone quite badly wrong, and he feels aggrieved.’ Brute stamps tantrums at the wife who cannot love him, clambers onto the table to bawl his disaffection. ‘There’s a loneliness about him, it’s terrible. So I have sneaking sympathy for him. But only as an actor.’

If Brute is an emotional incontinent, Trebell in Waste is damproofed, possible frozen. ‘It’s another good study of the English character,’ Pennington explains. ‘I think a lot of my father – he was also a Chancery lawyer. He was very much a nicer man, much more liberal that Trebell, but in him and what I knew of his colleagues, there was this emotional restraint, sexual restraint, and a tremendous intellectual energy.’ Trebell’s passions are for education, for disestablishment of the Church; emotive appeals cloy, but a sexual scandal nonetheless cruelly scuppers his plans. ‘The theme of the play,’ says Pennington, ‘that a man should be stopped from doing his very valuable work because of his private life, is a very English neurosis.’

‘For some reason, I was always being asked to do Russian things,’ Pennington recalls. As Trigorin, a writer of fashionable fictions in The Seagull he is the centre of a lot of flutter – desire, envy, admiration – through which he seems to sidle unaware. ‘Trigorin seems to me one of those dangerous weak men who uses up all the oxygen. He has a certain tawdry glamour about him, because of what he does, but he’s utterly destructive because his need finally if for attention.’ Pennington relishes Trigorin’s contradictions; ‘Trigorin, who seems to be a complete dead loss in many ways, does have a tremendous feeling for the countryside, even if he can’t write about human beings.’ His ‘tawdry glamour’ is by the end worn like a comfortable old cardigan: when we see him hunched over cards in the final scene, it seems clear that he’ll never leave Arkardina’s retinue. The actor nails Trigorin’s moral shabbiness through tones that slouch into a wheedle.

‘These are good times for Chekhov,’ Pennington proclaims. The sentimental interpretations of the past are stuffed and mounted like seagulls, replaced by the zippy lapwing dialogue of Frayn and Stoppard. ‘The plays are very funny, because they’re very cruel and the characters are very selfish,’ he continues.’ That’s really where the comedy is, their utter indifference to each other.’

Having rediscovered his enthusiasm for his one-man Chekhov show, he thinks he might tour with it over the next couple of years. Although he would readily have signed on for another year with the Peter Hall troupe, the abrupt decision by the Old Vic’s owners, producers David and Ed Mirvish, to sell the theatre, have put paid to that scheme. ‘Actors are very philosophical you know,’ is all Pennington will say. And he slopes off to prepare for the evening’s performance, looking slightly raffish, slightly shambolic, very Russian.

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