Let Me Play the Lion too: How to be an Actor by Michael Pennington, book review

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Books about the acting life, Michael Pennington asserts, "wobble uncertainly between the daftly self-important and the ingratiatingly self-mocking".

His own book is no exception. Some of the self-assured remarks in Let Me Play the Lion Too could almost have been ripped from the pages of Christopher Douglas's spoof autobiography I, An Actor: "I was briefly granted the freedom of the city of Assisi on the strength of my work" or "I wasn't playing Andrei, but he me".

But, setting aside a few spots of vanity, it is easy to admire the 71-year-old's prolific career, spanning five decades primarily on stage but also on screen, radio and behind the scenes as director and co-founder of the English Shakespeare Company in 1986. Pennington draws the bulk of his acting anecdotes from this impressively wide-ranging background, although occasionally he recounts stories from other performers when he comes to a topic not covered by his own career – disability or racial inequality in the industry, for example.

If viewed as a mini-memoir, Pennington is amusing and often thoughtful, and some theoretical remarks on his craft are illuminating. His belief that a good actor should "imply the opposites in your characters without inconsistency – the tenderness in a fighter, the courage in a coward" strikes me as dead on.

Pennington begins, unusually, with a guide to the world of soap operas before moving on to describe what one might expect from a day on a film set. But his interest lies more in "the spit and sawdust" of the stage. In theatre "the actor is a storyteller: he's in charge. In a movie he is anything but: the storytelling is in other hands". Actors have a degree of dispensability in film when compared to the technical side of the production "whose mistakes glare more than yours do".

There is a sense in the early chapters that Pennington is treading water until he can start talking about theatre, when his prose fires up and his passion is evident. It is intriguing for a non-thespian reader to see the familial comradery that can exist within a theatre company: "if the anthropological need in any group is its own survival, this small human organism, a theatre company, is already beginning to support, nurture and protect itself."

The main problem with this book, however, is flagged up by the title. If seen as a practical "how-to", it doesn't deliver on the "how". The practical advice on offer for any budding thespians doesn't amount to much – learn your lines, turn up on time, do what you're told, be nice to people. But the structure disrupts the element of memoir, so that the anecdotes seem inconsequential, skipping from one digression to another. Perhaps Pennington believed a memoir based just upon stories from his own career would not interest readers. The purely personal parts of this book are well-written enough to suggest he was mistaken.