Sweet William is a curious yet charming piece of theatre: Michael Pennington’s hymn of praise to Shakespeare and his works may lack the theatrical verve of Simon Callow’s recent exploration of the same topic, but it certainly contains a lot of warmth, insight and affection.
Pennigton is an actor whose theatrical life has revolved around the works of Stratford’s favourite son. He has played most of the leading roles and knows his subject better than most actors of his (or any other) generation. He certainly has no truck with those who doubt that the glove-maker’s son was the author of the plays.
The story of Shakespeare’s life is told through anecdote, historical research and speculation – there are so many gaps in the narrative, it is impossible to be certain of his exact path through life. And on this journey, the plays and poems are used to illuminate Shakespeare the man – just as the events of his life are used to illuminate the characters and situations in the scripts.
It is a simple concept and one that works – because Pennington is so persuasive, passionate and committed to the verse. He is one of the finest Shakespeareans of his generation and whilst his delivery might to some seem slightly mannered, almost old-fashioned in some respects, he creates the many characters so artfully that you do not mind.
90 minutes is not enough to fully explore the life and works of any author but Sweet William is not trying to tell a complete story. It is Pennington’s own – very personal – relationship with the Bard that is central to the success of the piece and he has shaped his material accordingly.
Anyone with a love of Shakespeare will find much to enjoy in sharing this exploration. It does not contain anything startlingly original but it is charming and thoroughly enjoyable.