A hit, a very palpable hit!

THEATRE Michael Pennington, one of our finest actors, has appeared in 'Hamlet' five times. Now he's written a book about it. Robert Cushman applauds
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The Independent Culture
MICHAEL PENNINGTON has played Hamlet five times and Hamlet twice. In other words he's been in five productions of the play, in three of which he has appeared successively as Fortinbras, as Laertes, and as Claudius- doubled-with-the-Ghost. But he started at the top, playing the prince in a Cambridge student production in 1964, and he returned to the part with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1980.

With all that to go on, he has written a book: Hamlet: A User's Guide (Nick Hern Books, pounds 18.99). He describes it as "a kind of owner's manual. I'm offering no views on whether you should have left- or right-hand drive or what colour the model should be, but I know the push-bang-suck of the engine by now and how the distributor works - perhaps also which passages call for pure brake-horsepower and which deft cornering."

I suppose I have read, or pretended to read, car manuals that were as knowledgeable as Pennington's, but I have never come across one that was remotely as witty, or as charming. He goes through the play, scene by scene, analysing action, pouncing on character detail, outlining (though, as a matter of policy, never resolving) ambiguities, in fact rehearsing the play on the page. Occasionally he offers modest suggestions about staging. He makes selective but illuminating use of theatre history. Acknowledging that it sounds "hubristic", he places the book in the line of Harley Granville Barker's famous Prefaces to Shakespeare. He might also have referred back to a slightly earlier and even more celebrated critic, the Victorian A C Bradley, who said that his method of dealing with a Shakespeare play was to approach it as if he were an actor studying all the parts. That's what he said. Pennington seems actually to have done it. He's as illuminating on Gertrude, Polonius or Ophelia as on the parts he's actually played.

Unexpectedly perhaps, the book doesn't go in much for autobiography. What there is occurs in his introduction and footnotes, which are among the best things in the book. ("Some kindly people in Stratford have told me that [when I was rehearsing Hamlet] they would see me wandering around the town and be afraid that I would absent-mindedly step into the path of a bus.")

I'm not sure whether Pennington's five on-stage encounters with Hamlet constitute a record, but I would like to stake a small associated claim of my own. I have for reasons educational, recreational or vocational seen every one of them. As an undergraduate two years his junior, I saw his student Hamlet. I even reviewed it, for a short-lived university rag. I don't remember much of what I wrote (and, to my chagrin, he hasn't got it locked in his memory either) but I'm sure it was mostly favourable. I remember it as a lively, sympathetic and - I'm sure I used this word - conscientious performance, one that made sense of every line: not a quality to be taken for granted among amateurs or professionals. I know I called it "the most intellectually exciting performance" I had seen at Cambridge, a description that aroused howls of outrage from the arbiters of theatrical opinion. Excitement was supposed to be a visceral thing, and intellect, if not actually shameful, was quite beside the point. Pennington had quite a lot to live down, since he turned out to be the rare university actor who actually got a good degree. (He attributes this to a certain fluency in exam-speak.)

These days he also directs. At least he directs one play. He did Twelfth Night for the English Shakespeare Company, the maverick touring company he ran with Michael Bogdanov, and he then did it again in Tokyo. Now he's directing it at a small but thriving Shakespeare theatre in Chicago - one of the best Shakespeare companies on a continent that's dotted with them. Its director, Barbara Gaines, who raved to me about Pennington, is determined to have him back to direct Hamlet, which really seems sort of inevitable. Or as he says, it's putting his money where his mouth is. And, of course, he's now well qualified to write a user's guide to Twelfth Night.

So with all this activity, surely he must be an intellectual actor? In fact the idea makes him shudder. "I hate it. I never function intellectually as an actor. I'm not an analyst in rehearsal." Nor, I suspect, would he care to think of himself as a romantic actor, an Establishment actor, or an English-gentleman actor ("I'm a Celt. My mother was a Scots girl, my father was Welsh") though his fair hair and gentle, melodious voice have often typed him that way. Some canny directors have reversed or tilted the image. Peter Hall had him play Fortinbras, to David Warner's Hamlet, as a blond Fascist beast. His Laertes, with Nicol Williamson, was directed by Tony Richardson to have an incestuous passion for Marianne Faithfull's Ophelia. ("Just grab his cock, Marianne.") Whether for that reason or another, his grief at her grave was unusually convincing.

After all the unkempt Williamsons and Warners, Pennington was cast by John Barton at Stratford to restore some traditional princely glamour to the title role. He did not altogether oblige. "I thumped Ophelia to the ground in the Nunnery Scene." That's in the book. In conversation he expands on this theme with relish: "I think Hamlet's an intolerable man. It's no wonder the Romantics adored him. He has all the flabby idealism of the Romantic sensibility. I encouraged hostility from the audience when playing Hamlet."

I can't say that he actually got it. Like most Hamlets, rough or refined, he wound up with the audience's sympathy. It's built into the play, for aesthetic rather than moral reasons; as Pennington says himself, "Hamlet has your inner ear." Actually, one of the best things about the book is the balance it keeps between the intolerable in Hamlet and the irresistible. And the larger contrast it draws between the apparent faults of the play itself ("it seems impossible for a production to make the play frame the man and the man belong in the play") and its overwhelming virtues ("galvanic force in the theatre, an ability to heal, and an effect on an audience unlike any other I know").

He actually wrote it while playing Claudius, keeping himself busy while touring (Leatherhead to Brighton via Athens) in last year's Peter Hall production with Stephen Dillane as the Prince. "Now," he says with the authority and the tolerance of middle-age, "I find Claudius more interesting than Hamlet." Also perhaps more sympathetic. "There is no evidence that there's anything wrong with the status quo in Denmark." Claudius is "the perfect apple with the worm inside". He is also "very playable as long as you keep in all the plotting".

The Hall production did keep in all the plotting, and Pennington's Claudius emerged as the best I've ever seen: also possibly the best performance of his career. He started with an impeccable facade (some of its details seemed to have been borrowed from the public persona of Sir Peter himself) which eroded, slowly but remorselessly, from the first stab of acknowledged guilt. As his desperation grew, so also did his borrowed majesty. It was a perfect demonstration of the area where, in the actor's own words, "sympathy collides with moral shock".

Pennington's introduction to the classics was classic. At the age of 10 he was "dragged very unwillingly" to see Macbeth at the Old Vic and was hooked. It wasn't, he admits, quite as neatly revelatory as all that; he already "loved reading Shakespeare in class" and the Macbeth was "striking a bell that was already there". The Vic was working its way through the entire canon, and he had seen nearly all the plays long before he left school. It's the stuff that educational fantasies are made of, though it may be statistically likelier to produce critics than actors. It perhaps contributed to the traditionalist image that has dogged his career. People were surprised when he teamed up with the iconoclast Bogdanov to form the ESC, and even more so when he played a markedly unsentimental Henry V in the cycle of history plays that defined the company's style. It might have been called eclectic-brutalist, though the eclecticism embraced some conservative aesthetics as well.

Pennington recalls that "it was very cheeky what we did", challenging the National and RSC on their own repertoire and beating them hands down at the touring game, home and abroad. "They couldn't fault us on the verse- speaking or the editing. But we weren't regarded generously by the theatre Establishment." The ESC cast new actors in leading roles but, though they won high praise, it didn't seem to lead to much success elsewhere. "My regret is that we didn't change more careers." He doesn't regret having packed it in after eight or nine years, proud though he is of what they achieved. As an actor-manager he found that he ran into "the same crises every year - and always at the same time every year. And I didn't enjoy chasing money. I became very physically tired. I won't do it again."

Towards the end of his book Pennington refers to actors playing Hamlet as "part of the logic of that almost outmoded thing, a 'classical' career". His own Stratford Hamlet happened that way, even his Cambridge Hamlet may have been a conscious first step on the road, but as he says, "to decide now at 21 to be a Shakespearian actor would be regarded as eccentric".

He does have a new Shakespeare part coming up: Shakespeare himself, in a radio play by Don Taylor. And he still has ambitions for Timon, Lear and Prospero. But what he most wants to do now are new plays. (He's actually done more of them than he lets on: Shaffer, Stoppard, Pinter, Brenton, Harwood, David Edgar.) He also has a one-man show on Chekhov. And though all actors these days write books, his is exceptional.

! Michael Pennington talks about and reads from 'Hamlet: A User's Guide' at the Lyttelton Theatre, SE1 (0171 928 2252) at 6pm on Tuesday (pounds 3.50; pounds 2.50 concs).