Interview: Actor/Director Michael Pennington

As the UK gears up for the World Shakespeare Festival, renowned actor and director Michael Pennington talks to Tom Wicker about his new book on the Bard.

Michael Pennington has lived with William Shakespeare for most of his life. As a child, watching Paul Rogers as Macbeth at the Old Vic in 1955 inflamed his imagination and propelled him into a career on the stage. During the past 40 years he has starred as Hamlet for the RSC and directed plays including Twelfth Night at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. In 1986, he and director Michael Bogdanov founded the English Shakespeare Company, which boldly re-imagined The Henrys and adapted The Wars of the Roses for the politically turbulent Eighties.

Pennington has also penned guides to Hamlet, Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream His one-man show, Sweet William, about Shakespeare’s life and work, has been met with great acclaim throughout Europe and in the USA.

Now, in Sweet William: Twenty Thousand Hours with Shakespeare, Pennington builds on his wealth of experience to illuminate the pleasures and pitfalls of Shakespeare’s plays as they have been staged throughout the years. Brimming with insight, wit and passion, this book has something to offer everyone from scholars and actors just starting out, to avid theatre-goers.

Why did you decide to write a book in addition to your solo show?

When I put the show together in 2006-7, I’d played around with lots of alternatives. There was an immense amount of material that I could use. But I hadn’t timed it or concentrated on what I had to choose. I realised when I finished the script that while I only needed something like 40 pages, I had ended up with about 150 pages of stuff. So behind the show had always sat this file of other material. I have an opinion on everything to do with Shakespeare. I could have gone on all night if people had been willing to stay! So, I thought, instead of doing another four of five shows, why not write a great big bumper book about Shakespeare instead?

Why not just publish an extended version of the script?

There didn’t seem to be much point in doing that because a large part of the show is performance, I improvise it to some extent and no one else is going to get the rights to do it. I had also already written three books about different Shakespeare plays. Like those, I call this one a user’s guide, based on the metaphor that every car has a slightly different engine. If you can look at the engine, see a characteristic weakness in it or something that distinguishes it, well, the same applies to a Shakespeare play as well. I do not think you should necessarily drive a Ford on the left- or right-hand side of the road, but it can be helpful to know how the engine works.

The market is bursting with books on Shakespeare. What can you offer?

If I say it is unique, it is not because I think I am so magnificent; and if I say that no one else could write it, it is not because I think I am so much better than everyone else. But I have a particular mixture of showmanship and scholarship. And it’s always struck me as odd that so few practitioners write much about theatre and especially about Shakespeare. I can’t think of an actor who has set out to write an entire book about a single play, let alone a book about his entire corpus. The last person do anything like this was Harley Granville Barker, back in the Thirties – a working writer, actor and director who wrote down his findings. So I’m tilting at him a little bit, even though his stuff is very much of its time. His prefaces still read well but his social and sexual politics are quite dated.

In the book you are not afraid to say when you dislike a play, are you?

No, but my criticism is affectionate. It’s like talking about a partner you have been with for a very long time. You can make a joke at their expense. I have spent most of my life with Shakespeare. He has some funny habits. He doesn’t always finish plotlines and occasionally leaves things hanging around. His house can be quite untidy! But it is all provisional. If I say that I don’t like Much Ado About Nothing, I am just waiting for the production that is going to change my mind. In the book I rather flippantly describe Antony and Cleopatra as a study of middle-aged folly. But I am doing the play later in the year and I am sure I am going to want to cancel that chapter and write something else afterwards. I keep having new ideas all the time.

Is your aim to reassure those who might otherwise approach Shakespeare with trepidation?

Yes, because a lot of people, particularly younger actors, are frightened of Shakespeare. A friend of mine recently tried out his audition pieces on me. He was doing Shakespeare for the first time and he was clearly scared of it. He settled himself into a sort of lotus position, did something with his chin and produced a sound that had no relationship with his voice. When I asked him what he was doing, he told me that he was focusing on breathing at the end of every line. He thought that was the only way to keep the meter going. I explained that he could still do that while taking up any tempo he wanted, just like a musician.

And Shakespeare allows you do that?

We are dealing with the simplest form of verse imaginable, invented by a man who had to communicate with illiterate people and highly educated Latin speakers in the same split second. He had to find a way to do it that would work for everybody. That was, and is, his incredible gift. Not all of the mythology we now have about how Shakespeare should be spoken is bunkum, but most of it is quite unhelpful.

How so?

So much fuss is made about form. It is the Victorians’ fault. If you listen to them on CD almost all of them sound unbearable – including people you would expect to be good, like Ellen Terry or Sybil Thorndike. With my company, the ESC, I went through a period that was dedicated to making the verse sound as simple and natural as possible without screwing up the poetry. The productions were on the money, politically, but also in terms of the speaking style. We had a lot of young actors who started out frightened of Shakespeare but ended up using the text very much as we use English now. Ralph Fiennes’s film of Coriolanus is a marvellous demonstration of how vernacular Shakespeare can be. The actors don’t mess around with the lines, they just SAY them. I’m much more interested in seeing that than I am in any kind of doctrine.

Would you disagree with people who argue that updating his language is the only way to make Shakespeare accessible?

Yes. All you have to deal with is that some of the words are unfamiliar and that occasionally he takes six or seven lines to develop an idea. That is the main technical difficulty for actors because we don’t talk like that now. To sustain an argument and have enough breath to do it, while keeping the ideas in the air, is the tricky thing. But of course there is the music. The more you speak the stuff the more you notice things like his fantastic use of the monosyllable, which is like the hook of a pop song. Obviously, that’s the fruit of many years of practice. But the starting point for any actor should simply be to treat it like a man or a woman talking to someone. You can go far further in that direction than you might think you can.

You devote a section of the book to parents and children in Shakespeare. Why does that fascinate you?

I suppose it is because his plays almost always feature single parent families. He does it so much that it is striking. Where’s Mrs Lear? Are there are any nuclear families in Shakespeare? Why not? Is it something to do with him? We get excited because we feel we are getting some autobiography at last. We have this desire for writers to be confessional. And he is, to an extent. The death of his son and the fact that he wrote Constance’s speech of bereavement in King John so close to the event? It clearly comes from the heart; likewise with the failed or bankrupted father figure (like Shakespeare’s own). But, as always, you can hear Shakespeare laughing at you – because these relationships work in the theatre. They are much more dramatically interesting than the cosy nuclear family. So you can never be sure if it is not just theatrical opportunism.

That fits with the way you use facts to humanise rather than psychoanalyse Shakespeare – portraying him as a jobbing playwright looking to pull in a crowd.

It is the safest assumption. He produced two plays a year in a highly competitive industry. But even saying that feels unsatisfying, because we want to get at him. The whole authorship controversy has to do with frustration at not being able to get a sense of him, unlike some of his contemporaries. What sort of bloke was he? If he were sitting here now, would we recognise him? Was he tall or short?

Would you say that social snobbery has played its part in the authorship controversy?

Yes, as well as a misunderstanding of his level of education. The fact is that he was very well educated. His Latin and Greek would have pretty much been to our university standards even though he went to grammar school and left when he was 14. He would also have learned rhetoric and argument – schooling was very different to now.

Do you have a favourite play?

It is all the same play – that is the thing. Three hours multiplied by 37. What is so striking about Shakespeare is that you can’t say: “He started out not being very good before getting better and then declining later on.” Romeo & Juliet and Richard II are early plays but they are as strong as anything he wrote. In that sense he was a genius, because he didn’t mature in the same way that we expect our artists – and indeed ourselves – to do. He had good and bad days throughout his life. Do I have a favourite play? It is usually the one I have just done. That said, playing Hamlet for two years in the circumstances that prevailed at the RSC in the early Eighties and having the part walk in step with my life was an incredible opportunity and privilege.

In Subsequent Performances, Jonathan Miller talks about discovering something new each time he revisits a play. Do you ever go back to a part?

Directors can; actors do not. Those of Gielgud’s generation might have played Hamlet five times. But who can do that now? Ken Branagh, maybe. But he makes it happen. The profession is so crowded that you are lucky if you get one shot at a part these days. What you do instead is go and see the same play over and over again and notice different things. For example, Much Ado… never made much sense to me until I saw Marianne Elliott’s production, set in Cuba, at the RSC a few years ago. So, you are more likely to revisit a play as an audience member than a practitioner.

From talking about Olivier and Gielgud to the challenges facing younger actors today, there is a strong sense of theatrical legacy in your book. Why is that important to you?

It is one of the penalties of getting older. You cannot help but find yourself in the position of using terrible metaphors like “handing on the baton”. I don’t mean that in a patronising way. It irritates me when actors of my generation warm their bums against the fire and go, “Oh, the verse isn’t spoken like it used to be.” It is an oedipal thing. And if it is true it is because there is not the same opportunity. Since the rep circuit broke down actors do not have the chance to do Shakespeare that much. We were very lucky and we have got to be encouraging. He is there to take, a common coin rather than something to be aspired to. So I hope that my overall position comes across as a positive one.

What do you see as the future for the staging of Shakespeare in this country?

I don’t know where it is going to go. Economics may mean that more and more you are going to have to go to small rooms to see plays performed by underpaid actors or to somewhere like the National to see huge, operatic versions. I want to do King Lear in a small theatre. I would really like to see how intimate you can get. I did a late Ibsen at the end of last year, When We Dead Awaken, at the Print Room, which is the size of a postage stamp! How do you deal with this high-falutin play, which is supposed to end with an avalanche, in a way that makes sense in Westbourne Grove? I think we succeeded more often than we failed – the audience was right there with us. The Print Room is a fantastic space.

Are the best productions sometimes in smaller venues because space and budgetary limitations demand inventiveness?

Absolutely, that is the fun of it. And I have been re-enacting the large/small debate with my own show. I started at the Little Angel and then did a season at the Arcola, before going to the huge Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. I loved the Arcola because you just have to talk. I also did Studio 2 at Trafalgar Studios, which was interesting because the audience was so close. But then there is something about Shakespeare that just blooms when you have air and space. So I have yet to settle on one thing or another!

Do you have any thoughts on the upcoming World Shakespeare Festival?

I think this is going to be a year when the country congratulates itself on creating this fantastic playwright. The fact is that he created us. He is responsible for our language and we quote from him all of the time. It is inconceivable to imagine life going on here without Shakespeare. He prepared the soil for us. But politicians are going to be misquoting him, like Michael Portillo did when he used Troilus and Cressida to more or less say that he would have been a Conservative voter. Shakespeare is going to be co-opted and claimed by everyone. He is going to get lost in it all. I am glad I got my book out early because there are going to be a lot more!

Finally, what makes a good Shakespearean actor?

I have to be careful not to get too fancy about this. There is something quite spiritual about performing Shakespeare. If you think about his characters and their journeys, what you need as an actor is the temperament, imagination and willingness to do it. It is beyond technique, being able to speak it or having the athletics to keep up – you need a kind of modest heroism. I can’t put it better than that.

Sweet William: Twenty Thousand Hours with Shakespeare is published by Nick Hern Books. You can purchase it here:

Michael Pennington will be starring in Antony & Cleopatra at this year’s Chichester Festival Theatre. For more information, go to:

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