20 Questions With...Michael Pennington
Date: 24 February 2003
Actor Michael Pennington, who's currently starring in ETT's revival of John Gabriel Borkman & reprising his solo show Anton Chekhov, explains his urge to become better acquainted with the Russian dramatist.
Despite never having trained as one, Michael Pennington has become one of the leading stage actors of his generation, renowned in particular for his classical roles.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Pennington spent many years with the Royal Shakespeare Company as well as several seasons at the Royal Court and the National Theatre. With director Michael Bogdanov, he co-founded the English Shakespeare Company in 1986, taking still more leading Shakespearean roles in productions toured around the UK and the world over some seven years.
In more recent years, Pennington has performed alongside Judi Dench and Elaine Paige as part of Peter Hall's repertory company at the West End's Old Vic and Piccadilly theatres, in productions of The Misanthrope, Major Barbara, Filumena and others. Other recent West End credits have included: The Guardsman, An Ideal Husband, Gross Indecency, Waste, Taking Sides and The Entertainer.
Amongst Pennington's regional theatre credits of late are The Shawl at Sheffield Crucible, The Front Page at Chichester Festival and a UK-wide tour of Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw, co-starring Jane Asher. He's currently starring - with Gillian Barge and Linda Bassett - in English Touring Theatre's production of Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman which is paired with a new mounting of his celebrated one-man show Anton Chekhov.
The latter - which Pennington both wrote and performs - premiered at the National Theatre in 1984 and has since toured around the world. Pennington's book about the experiencing of researching and delivering the piece, Are You There Crocodile? Inventing Anton Chekhov has just been published in hardback by Oberon Books.
Date & place of birth Born in Cambridge in 1943.
Lives now in...
North London. I've lived in the country for a while, but I'm a mountain person rather than a valley person, and I've always gone back to north London, which is where I was brought up.
I didn't train as an actor. I'm one of those Oxbridge upstarts who read English (but not much of it!) at Cambridge in the early 1960s in a generation that included Trevor Nunn and Richard Eyre, and thought I could start right away as an actor afterwards, having treated university like a repertory theatre!
First big break
I got what looked like a big break in 1967, when I'd been out as an actor for about three years and landed a part in a John Mortimer play, The Judge, with Patience Collier and Patrick Wymark. But it only ran for three months. That's probably an optimal time if you get noticed, because then you're free to capitalise on your success. And though I'd been to Stratford before, going back in 1974 to play leading roles was a formative moment.
Career highlights to date
I'm obviously very pleased to have played the big roles like Hamlet for the RSC; but my own personal preferences are more esoteric, and Strider at the National in 1984 is probably the production I'm the proudest of ever. It only had a short run in the Cottesloe - and is probably forgotten by many - in which it was my role to play a horse and human being simultaneously. It was based on an old Tolstoy short story that is a barely disguised parable of 19th-century Russian life, and was the equivalent to being a ballet dancer. It was a tremendous physical challenge and was unusual territory for an actor to be in.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
Everything we did with the English Shakespeare Company, which I formed with director Michael Bogdanov in 1986 and we ran together for six or seven years. I had as direct input into the style of productions as co-artistic director, which even leading actors don't normally have. It was my actor-manager phase and I'm very proud of it. We did the entire cycle of Shakespeare's History Plays, and toured worldwide. Another favourite is my solo Chekhov show, Anton Chekhov, which I'm still doing after twenty years; and Crime and Punishment at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1983, directed by then-defecting Russian director Yuri Lyubimov, at the time he first left for the West.
I've worked with Judi Dench three times - in The Way of the World, Peter Shaffer's The Gift of the Gorgon, and Filumena. I also greatly enjoyed working with Elaine Paige on The Misanthrope, and with Felicity Kendal on Waste at the Old Vic; and with Theresa Banham, one of the finest, most underrated actresses we have, as part of a David Mamet double-bill in which we performed The Shawl, at the Sheffield Crucible.
Lyubimov, Peter Hall, Stephen Unwin with whom I'm working at the moment. And, of course, Michael Bogdanov, because of the scope of what we did with the English Shakespeare Company, and the fact that we managed to stay friends throughout the years while controlling artistic policy together.
Chekhov and Shakespeare of course. I loved doing Mamet, and I very much liked doing Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's play, The Front Page, at Chichester last year.
What roles would you most like to play still?
Lear and Prospero from Shakespeare, but I don't really have a shopping list. I'm an actor who likes to be taken by surprise - like a girl who likes to be asked to dance.
What's the best thing you've seen on stage recently?
I loved Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia trilogy at the National for its scope and its scale. I miss a lot, I'm afraid, but the things that have stuck with me over the years include Robert Lepage's Dragon's Trilogy, for its astounding virtuoso directing of a great ensemble, and A Doll's House with Janet McTeer a few years ago.
What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
I've spent most of my adult life complaining, but over the last two or three years there's been a cash injection, particularly into regional theatre, that I can't quarrel with, so they've done well just at the moment. So I would say, Keep up the good work, and keep it coming!
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?
Chekhov - the book I've written is trying to do just that. He remains the one famous person I would most like to spend a day with.
Favourite holiday destination
Italy - for its style, its food, its climate, the unbelievable richness of its culture. It's easier to visit than to live in, but I would cheerfully spend two holidays a year there.
A great book by Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading, tells in the most entertaining and scholarly way everything you need to know about books and literature; followed by Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Ian McEwan's Atonement.
Favourite after-show haunts
For all its up and downs, Joe Allen's is still a favourite. And the Groucho, selectively but not too often, I'm of an age when it's unseemly to go to too many after-show haunts!
If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
My father wanted me to be a lawyer, but I didn't have the stamina. It would probably have been something to do with literature, but I'm very, very grateful for how things turned out. Doing anything other than what I've done would have been a poor second. Some get tired of it, but I like the job more and more as the years go by, not less.
Why did you want to accept your part in ETT's production of John Gabriel Borkman?
I very much like Stephen Unwin's company. It's related to what I used to do myself with English Shakespeare Company, touring the classics around the country. Also, I've never done Ibsen before, which surprises me, but has meant that I managed to avoid all the clergymen and intolerant husbands and am now doing what is almost a self-portrait of Ibsen himself. It's less well known than his other plays, but I can't imagine why - it seems just as good. Also, it has three parts for people in their fifties, and I'm astoundingly lucky to have Gillian Barge and Linda Bassett with me. They're the definition of quality as far as I'm concerned.
How did your one-man show Anton Chekhov - & your new book about the experience - come about?
I was travelling on the Trans-Siberian Express in 1975. I was coming back from Japan and fancied travelling across Russia by train, when I met an American poet and scholar Lucien Stryk, who pointed out something that I didn't know about Chekhov: that he had trudged across Siberia in 1890 to do a survey of prison conditions in a penal colony on the west coast of Russia in Sakhalin. My immature view of Chekhov was of a man who sat in a deckchair writing his melancholic plays, but he was a very determined and progressive social reformer.
Lucien suggested I write a solo show, and for the next ten years, he would ring me about it, asking how I was progressing, and I would say it's too awkward and he's too loved a figure. But by the 11th year, I had done it. The National Theatre put it on for me in 1984, it went into the repertoire for a time and I toured it to festivals, and I've been doing it off and on ever since. So I've had the odd experience of having done the same material written by myself for 20 years, though I'm a different person now to what I was then. Above all, it's not about Chekhov the playwright or his relationship to the theatre, but about the sort of man he was based on a guess of what he would like to talk about if you had his company for two hours. So it's more about fishing, neckties, literature, gossip and how you write good short stories than the familiar anecdotes about the theatre, and it's intended to make the audience feel as if they're in a room with the man and are having an almost two-sided conversation with him.
When I revived Anton Chekhov at the Old Vic in 1997, I had this idea to write a book about the time I'd spent with him, and it turned into a kind of autobiography, though I wouldn't have ventured to do one otherwise.
How do you think Anton Chekhov works alongside Ibsen's piece?
They're totally different - it's a matter of contrast rather than similarity.
What's the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that has happened in rehearsals or the run to date of either?
We have a snow machine that is supposed to snow outside the drawing room, but during a technical rehearsal turned me into a snowman as it snowed inside it!
What are your plans for the future?
I am going to direct A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park in June, which is an awesome responsibility.
- Michael Pennington was speaking to Mark Shenton
English Touring Theatre's production of John Gabriel Borkman opened last week in Malvern and continues until 19 April 2003 to York, Greenwich, Salford, Oxford, Bromley and Richmond. It's joined in Oxford by Anton Chekhov, which also has a week in Bury St Edmunds from 11 to 15 March, while the Ibsen production takes a break.
Michael Pennington's new book Are You There Crocodile? Inventing Anton Chekov is published by Oberon Books (hardback, priced £19.99). TO WIN a copy, click here. Competition ends 30 March 2003.