Pennington is an acclaimed actor, director and author who, in addition to numerous seasons at the RSC, has played leading Shakespearean roles around the world with the English Shakespeare Company, which he co-founded in 1986 with director Michael Bogdanov.
His myriad West End credits include Taking Sides and Collaboration, An Ideal Husband, Gross Indecency, Waste, The Entertainer and his one-man show Sweet William.
Michael Pennington: Judgement Day is a retitled version of Ibsen’s last play, which is normally titled When We Dead Awaken. He wrote it when he was very close to having the stroke that killed him, and it’s much neglected because people tend to regard it as the work of an ailing genius.
I think he may not even have intended it to be performed because it has elements in it that are very difficult to stage, but he certainly intended it to be read. So perhaps for those reasons it’s remained relatively obscure.
I play Arnold Rubek, a sculptor, who is happily married to a much younger woman. He’s at a point of his life when he’s very successful but has somewhat lost his way as an artist. They go to a health spa in the mountains where he encounters a woman who modeled for his most famous work, and it’s one of those unresolved relationships which many people have in their lives. So much of the play is about his struggle to decide what to do in terms of these two women and the fourth character, a younger man – I won’t give away too much more of the story as it’s a new play to many people.
In some ways the idea of sacrificing your personal happiness for art is the lingua franca of my profession. You could certainly parallel the relationship between the model and sculptor with that between an actor and a director, or two people playing Romeo and Juliet. But it’s not just relevant to the arts; I think it speaks to anyone who’s had a relationship with a hard-working partner. It’s a very resonant story in the context of art because that’s the world that Ibsen understood.
For me, eccentrically, it completes a trio, as the only Ibsens I’ve performed in my life are the final three, namely John Gabriel Borkman and The Master Builder. So these late, partly autobiographical portraits seem to have been what I’ve come in on, having never played those uncomprehending husbands and mysterious pastors and mayors that populate the earlier plays.
I was on holiday after completing The Syndicate when the offer came through, and at first I thought I wasn’t too sure but as always with Ibsen after a couple of read-throughs you want to do it quite badly. Underneath it all is this incredible curiosity that Ibsen had about men and women, and this unmistakable sense that he worries that his devotion to his art may have been a wasted life because he’s neglected so many other things.
The other thing that was an incentive was the opportunity to work in this wonderful new space The Print Room, which is already a success story and which I can only say is the most wonderful place to work. It’s so good that at such a difficult time a new theatre can still grow and flourish.
This play is right up their street because their brief is to a large extent to produce lesser known plays by well-known writers; they’ve done an Ayckbourn and a Pasolini recently. I can’t praise Lucy Bailey and Anda Winters and their colleagues highly enough for the work they’ve done there. Long may it continue.
Judgement Day, which also stars Philip Corriea, Andrew Hanratty, Peter Symonds, Jane Thorne and Sara Vickers continues until 17 December.