Old Vic's master of disguise

Profile: John Walsh meets... Michael Pennington
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The Independent Online
When Michael Pennington was just 11, he was taken to the Old Vic theatre in London - "dragged there", as he recalls, "because I knew it was going to be boring" - plonked in a seat and told to watch Macbeth, as impersonated by Paul Rogers. The effect was amazing. Countless early Bardophiles have said, as he now says, "It changed my life", but in Pennington's case it's literally true. It was like Ruth Lawrence being given her first sum, Ryan Giggs encountering his first spherical object, Mozart hearing B flat major in his cot. Pennington went to the next production (John Neville in Richard II) and the next and... "They were doing all the Shakespeares here in 1954, so by the time I was 14 or 15, I'd seen the lot. It thrilled me. But it was completely un-brainy. It was sexy".

From that day, Pennington has devoted the major part of his life to the works of the Avon swan. If his name and face are not as well known as his classical peers (Ian McKellen, say, or Alan Howard), it's because he has remained so grimly true to the stage. His career suggests a man in the grip of an obsession, drenched and drowned in Shakespeariana. He played Hamlet in a student production when at Cambridge in 1964, and went directly from university to Stratford, has played every Shakespearean male lead except Romeo, co-founded the English Shakespeare Company in 1986 with Michael Bogdanov, the well-known critic-abuser, and toured their epic conflation of the history plays all over the known world under the title The Wars of the Roses. He's written a book about the ESC, and a notably convincing and sensitive study called Hamlet: A User's Guide. Without actually changing his name to Will, and acquiring an Elizabethan ruff and a pointy beard, it's hard to see how Mr Pennington can more forcefully express his interest in our finest poet and dramatist.

He's also, however, been at pains to reinterpret the Bard for new generations and complexions of theatre audience - the young, the working-class, the criminal, the Third World, the disadvantaged... "The best Twelfth Night I ever saw," he explains, "was in a school production at Westminster, because the innocence of the performing was wonderful. And though it's heresy for an actor to say this, the ESC did a production of The Tempest in Maidstone Prison, with two professional actors and a cast of lifers, which is easily the best Tempest I've ever seen. It's a play, of course, that's centrally concerned with freedom and imprisonment. Sometimes the crudeness or amateurishness of the playing affects me more than any more sophisticated treatment can. Just as the Shakespeare canon I saw in the mid-Fifties, though it was probably crudely done, and we might curl our lip at it now, it probably comes closer to the blood and thunder of what Shakespeare really is..."

Hmmm. Does Mr Pennington comes across as a little too evangelical, as the kindly vicar surveying the amateur- dramatics society and muttering "Ah, bless them..."? That wouldn't be right. In the flesh, he seems without affectation, an unusually clever, thoughtful and articulate chap, none of which adjectives can be generally applied across the acting profession. His days as a dashing romantic lead (fair- to-blond curls swept back from his handsome face and mile-high forehead) have crept past, leaving him, at 53, looking a bit lean and shrunken, his sharp eyes hooded by Garfield lids. His drily musical, Alec McCowen- ish voice is accompanied by a lot of graceful, actorish hand gestures, but nothing that would prompt a rebuke ("And do not saw the air thus...") from Polonius. He is the very model of a professional actor, dependable and competent but perhaps less disposed towards passionate risks than heretofore. And thus he seems the right man to play Henry Trebell, MP, the lead role in Harvey Granville Barker's 1926 play Waste, which kicks off the Peter Hall rep company's new season at the Old Vic next week.

He has, of course, played dozens of non-Bard roles in his career (Chekhov is a speciality). But committing himself to Sir Peter's rep company for a long season - he will also be appearing as Trigorin in The Seagull and Sir John Brute in Vanbrugh's The Provok'd Wife - is a statement of intent for Pennington. It means he's back in town, disdaining television and movies and touring and even Shakespeare, committing himself to the open stage and expanding his range of roles. "I do count myself lucky to have done all that Shakespeare," he says, "but I've always been a character actor by instinct, a disguiser rather than a self-promoter. When I first went to Stratford, I was always saying, 'I don't want to play the student or the lover, can I play the guy's father of the tractor hand or something?' '' He is proudest of having hoofed and sung as Archie Rice, the "saloon-bar Priapus" in Osborne's The Entertainer at the Hampstead Theatre. And he was pleased with the huge risk of Strider: the Story of a Horse, at the National, in which he played the eponymous equine, getting inside the role by spending two gruelling hours a day learning prancing and dressage at the barre.

And now there's Waste, a drama with reassuringly Shakespearean ambitions. It's politics vs idealism, in which Henry Trebell, an independent MP and intellectual superman, is wooed into a new Labour government and promised a seat in Cabinet on the understanding that he will steer through Parliament a bill for the disestablishment of the Church of England. But the repercussions of an affair with a loose-cannon married Catholic woman start to wreck everything, even when the Prime Minister tries to smooth it all over. It's a very wordy, brittle and Shavian piece of work, in which everyone talks political shop, everyone schemes in tuxedos and very long sentences, and the air is thick with moral trimming.

"Barker is as good as Shaw I think," says Pennington, "line by line and scene by scene. He hasn't any of that vanity and show-off quality that Shaw has. And I think I understand why he's not as big as Shaw; it's because his writing is so... chaste. His political arguments are very thorough. He doesn't stop halfway through with a joke, as Shaw would. He doesn't simplify. He asks that you listen." He gave a small sigh, "and he's provided the least commercial title of the century. Shaw would have called it "A Statesman and a Scandal" or "Too Pretty to be Good", or something..."

The role of Henry - a smarter 1926 Cecil Parkinson - is hard to get in focus: he's a man who is, by turns, astute, unworldly, passionate, reclusive, a cold fish, a ladies' man, a political visionary, a political pragmatist... Pennington rises to the challenge by playing him with a near-permanent crinkly-eyed grin which only cracks when someone yells in his face. I said I thought he was miscast. Did he have a clear sense of Henry's character?

"I'm getting there. It's not as simple as it looks. The thing is, Barker breaks one of the rules of drama, which is that a character should be just as he's described by everyone else. But before he comes on, they all say, he's such a solitary, he hates women - and first thing you see of the guy is when he's literally charming the knickers off a society girl."

The "girl" is Felicity Kendal, all flapper threads and coquettish wail, whom the text requires Mr Pennington to kiss several times with impetuous, let-me-devour-you enthusiasm. How had he come to terms with snogging the nation's sweetheart every night? "I must be the luckiest man in Britain," he gallantly replied. Did they have a bilateral no-tongues agreement? "I think tongues are cheating when it comes to stage kissing," said Pennington seriously, "because the audience can't see it... But playing love scenes is daft anyway. I've got away with it, all these years - I've never had to take my kit off. And now I'm too old for anyone to want me to. But for girls, well - you simply won't get through your career without having to do it, if you're halfway pretty..."

Back to the play. What is the "waste" the title refers to? Is it personal or political? "It's a play about a man who's incapable of joining in. He's 51, he has beliefs and convictions but he's too proud to join in. He's never married, never had a family. Then two things happen: he gets fired up over a political issue and joins a government; and suddenly the idea of parenthood is offered to him. Then both things are abruptly taken away and the loss - the two wastes - are enough to destroy him."

Pennington, so adept at teasing out motivation and latent passion in Shakespeare, is frustrated by Granville Barker's impermeable surface. "If it was Ibsen, there'd come a point where a great fissure would open in the text and all this emotional lava would come out. But Barker never allows you that. I asked Peter [Hall] at the beginning: 'How do I show what he's really feeling?' You look for the place where it falls apart and you can't find it."

Had he met many politicians? "I sat beside Virginia Bottomley once," he said with evident distaste. "She came to see a play I was in, called Taking Sides and we went to the Ivy [restaurant] afterwards. At the end she said, 'What do you want me to do, now I'm at Heritage?' I remember pitching in with some things I feel strongly about, like the fact that students can't raise grants to train for the theatre any more, and have to write begging letters to people like me. All she would say was, "Ah, but I believe drama schools are charging too much anyway" which rather misses the point. What struck me was, she spent most of the time in a devotional posture, with her hands on the table before her. It was only when midnight struck that I realised she'd been looking at her wristwatch all evening. And at midnight on the nail, she left."

Was there was a little unconfessed anger here? There was. It was about the L-word. "It was when I heard her talking about this fairly harmless proposal of Blair's, to spend some Lottery money for some form of grant for actors, and she describes it as a "Luvvies' Charter." Pennington practically smouldered in front of me, like Coriolanus, or Henry Trebell finding a cause to fight against. "It's truly hair-raising that she can express herself in that way and not care how unpopular she's going to be among the constituency she's supposed to be looking after."

Pennington's combative streak has surfaced at several points in his career - when globetrotting with a theatrical troupe, having blazing rows about the provision of cooked breakfasts, and when resigning from the English Shakespeare Company five years ago, after suffering the death of a thousand cuts at the hands of the Arts Council ("I threw my resignation on the table in the middle of a board meeting, stormed out and rang The Independent..."). Today, he's past all the actor-manager histrionics, the travelling Shakespeare Show that was the Wars of the Roses. He lives in Highgate and is extremely cagey about his private life: "I'm a single, heterosexual bachelor" is all he'll volunteer to the press. Noting his strong paternal streak, I asked if he had children and yes, "I've a son of 30 called Mark, a very good illustrative photographer. I'm going to be a grandfather in April. Mark is living in my house in the country in Oxfordshire, so I'm dreaming of lots of grandchildren running about under the apple trees..." How sweet to encounter such a fond prospect of retirement. But, as parts go, it's a bit on the quiet side for such a connoisseur of passion, such a cautious observer of wasted lives.

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