Performers of Shakespeare, more than naughty children, have to listen when told to act their age. Michael Pennington, in a career spanning six decades, has played the lot: a youthful Hamlet, a mid-life Macbeth, and, in a current tour, Lear. I met him at the Oxford Playhouse, where King Lear is currently being performed, for a piece of lemon tart and the chance to hear some of his reflections on the acting industry.
Pennington is frequently characterised as a Shakespearian actor (including in the paragraph above), and I wonder whether this label is helpful. “It creates a false respect,” Pennington remarks, and could be understood as a way of “saying you wouldn’t be any good in a movie”. While performing plays as messy and confusing as King Lear, however, the question of whether the lead actor is any good is patently out of the question. Although he has played Lear a number of times before, including during a highly successful production at the Polonsky Shakespeare Centre in Brooklyn, Pennington remains captivated by the play. “You can see this utter relaxation in Shakespeare,” he says, “out of utter confidence in his ability”. The “immense polysyllabic abstracts” of the first Act give way to the “monosyllables” of the last, as Lear, reduced to despair, declaims, for example, “Howl, howl, howl, howl, O you are men of stone!” The play also has great power to speak to modern audiences, Pennington suggests. “We’re interested in seeing Lear as the CEO of a big corporation, who has made the hugely unwise decision to arrange his inheritance so that his children receive before he is dead”, or in visualising the descent of Alzheimer’s. “Shakespeare who knew nothing of neuroscience, obviously had an instinct” for a kind of human truth, Pennington goes on. In any production of King Lear, it is also important to do justice to the “primitive […] and incantatory” element of Shakespeare”s language.
This tension in combining Shakespeare’s cultural relevance with faithfulness to the text was cogently demonstrated when Pennington was part of the English Shakespeare Company in the 1980s. Pennington set up the Company in 1986 along with the director, Michael Bogdanov, aiming to perform Shakespeare to wider audiences than was then possible. Their staging of the “Wars of the Roses” plays in the political turbulence of the ’80s was particularly pertinent. “Critics of our show would say we could have got that [cultural relevance] anyway,” Pennington explains, “the modernity by just listening to the words – but I think people need help sometimes”. In their production of Henry VI, Part 1, for example, “to have Prince Hal, the rebel and the bad-boy […] in torn jeans and Doc Martens”, while his father, Henry, wears “a frock-coat”, helped to convey more quickly that the “crown prince is dressing down for effect”. Pennington goes on to describe further “mischievous things” in their performances, such as the way in which “Henry V’s invasion of France looked uncannily like Thatcher’s Falklands campaign”. “We wanted to make clear that there was very little moral justification for Henry’s invasion of France”, Pennington explains, “just as many people would say there was little justification in the Falklands”. Pistol and his gang purposefully “came across as football hooligans”, while a slogan, “Fuck the Frogs” was intended to recollect the Sun’s iconic headline, “Gotcha”. The company had licence to innovate in this way, according to Pennington, because “we always spoke the language well”, enabling them to walk the “precipice between getting letters from enraged [traditional viewers] and being loved by young people”. Pennington fondly recalls a time when “school parties still came to shows” and young people could be heard “arguing on train platforms whether Hotspur or Hal was in the right”.
Given his success on the stage, the quantity of Pennington’s performances on screen is perhaps surprisingly limited. Appearances as the famous Moff Jejerrod, the commander of the Death Star, in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, and as Michael Foot in The Iron Lady, along with some roles on television, form the bulk of his screen experience. I wonder if this is a source of regret. “Very much, [but] I suppose the answer is that you can’t do everything,” Pennington immediately replies, before adding, “Well, some people manage to do everything. Kenneth Branagh’s done everything”. One of the main constraints appears to have been Pennington’s delight in performing on stage. “Instinctively, if a good stage play would arrive, I would do it,” he explains. “My various agents have always said hold off a bit, give us six months, and we’ll get you into movies or TV, but I didn’t have the patience”. Pennington holds no bitterness though: “I can only be grateful for what I have been able to do […] I love doing this”.
Digging for any root of hostility, I ask whether there’s a degree of frustration among stage actors when prominent figures like David Tennant or Benedict Cumberbatch, with one-off performances in plays, are able to draw large crowds. Pennington chuckles, before replying, “You need to be careful about David Tennant; he was at the RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company] way before he was ever in television […] Stage strengthened his arm enormously, in terms of what he can be asked to do, and he carries it very gracefully”. Pennington has appeared alongside Tennant in an RSC production of Richard II, and describes him as a “very lovely fellow [who is] very nice to work with”. “And Benedict?” he continues, “No, good luck to him absolutely”. Pennington goes on to suggest that there is a “journalistic trope”, which works to criticise actors who purportedly have gained stage acclaim only through high-profile screen appearances. The reality is that even well-known Hollywood actors and actresses, “like Al Pacino and Meryl Streep”, have often come to the screen after a large number of roles on stage; Pacino and Streep “worked on Broadway long before screen breaks”.
I’m curious about the different skills required for stage and screen acting. Both, according to Pennington, rely on “an appetite” and “a savviness to know what is going to be called for”. In practical terms, screen acting requires an understanding of the “relationship with the camera and eye-lines” and being able to concentrate in a small room “full of people”. While stage performances work towards a climax, film roles are like a “jigsaw”, in which “you might spend five hours working towards a particular scene”, but nevertheless are compelled to be “completely spontaneous”. Stage actors, by contrast, have “to be good every single night”, but also must work within the paradox of being simultaneously “different” and “sufficiently the same that it’s going to be the same performance”. No mean feat, when, as with this week’s production of King Lear, there are eight performances and matinees on Thursday and Saturday.
Pennington’s career has taken him on paths not often trod by other actors. In Anton Chekhov and Sweet William, shows dating from the ’80s and the late ’00s respectively, he performed on stage solo. Anton Chekhov originates from a journey on the trans-Siberian railway. While sharing a compartment with an American Literature Professor, Pennington discovered that Chekhov had himself made the journey in 1890, to carry out a survey of prison conditions on an island off the east coast of Russia. It was a moment, Pennington tells me, when Chekhov was transformed in his mind into “a progressive, a reformer”, and, upon his return to the UK, using the Russian writer’s letters and some stories, he created “a narrative for theatre”. Sweet William, by contrast, combines biographical elements about Shakespeare with some anecdotes and short performances from lesser-known works likes Pericles or Timon of Athens. “It’s always good to have something up your sleeve […] for the quieter patches,” Pennington says, although he is not so enthusiastic about the lifestyle which surrounds solo performance. “I cannot tell you what it’s like to arrive somewhere at four o’clock on your own, and trying to kill two hours before you start”, especially “on a Sunday when Pizza Express is closed”.
Any closing words of advice from the maestro to aspiring actors in Oxford. “Come and see us,” Pennington encourages. “You’re not going to see anything old-fashioned in this production […] but something relevant and energetic”, and something which, he finally adds, “you can rebel against when you come to do it yourself”.