by Michael Pennington.
Mercury Theatre Balkerne Gate CO1 1PT.
2 April 7.30pm.
Runs 2hr 10min One interval.
TICKETS: 01206 573948.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 18 March at Royal and Derngate Northampton.
Perceptive and thrilling – watch out for future tour dates.
If we could talk with William Shakespeare for an hour we’d learn – well, next to nothing, given Michael Pennington’s point near the start of his absorbing performance that the playwright and poet who expresses mankind’s multifarious moods hasn’t left us one certain opinion of his own.
Few playwrights manage this, though Anton Chekhov comes close. Pennington also has a full-length Chekhov show; complexities doubtless attract this always intelligent actor, for whom technique is a means of gaining access to feeling.
He explores Shakespeare, sometimes calling the scant autobiographical facts into witness. But mostly charting the plays’ development against their times – politics, though not party allegiance, are important in Shakespeare. The English Shakespeare Company, which Pennington co-ran with director Michael Bogdanov for a number of years, linked the plays with modern trends and events in society. But even more there’s the world around the first productions.
Factual fascinations arise – the court premiere (at Christmas) of King Lear had in its audience sons of the king who were Dukes of Albany and Cornwall (their stage counterparts being virtuous but weak and violent respectively). This Shakespeare was interested in Browning’s “dangerous edge of things”, where contraries meet and challenge each other, or (in one phase) authority’s tripped-up by minor characters.
Shakespeare helped create Elizabethan acting – Pennington shows how intimate stage and audience could be – with verse which could match Christopher Marlowe’s resounding heroics but also be touchingly human; as when King Lear’s last scene has the king asking for help undoing a button.
Moods could instantly swing. On stage and off, the audience in A Midsummer Night’s Dream laugh at the Mechanicals’ pathetic amateur presentation of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ – until one of these Mechanicals, never on stage before, becomes involved in his female role and, in words of direct simplicity, casts a magical spell.
Pennington demonstrates how Shakespeare developed the soliloquy as a means of expressing and debating thought. And many other things. There’s yet more in his book of the same name. But this has the delight of seeing a major actor at work on Shakespearean speech: an unmissable Shakespearean joy.
Performer: Michael Pennington.