More a friendly lecture than a show, Michael Pennington’s solo Shakespeare evening Sweet William is still one of the most entertaining and instructive evenings imaginable.
As in his marvellous users’ guides to three of the plays (Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night), Pennington wears his learning and experience at a fresh and jaunty angle, never pulverising the audience with strenuous theories or madcap readings. He simply takes the plays as he finds them.
Sometimes, though, the plays become enriched by their context for him, as did Henry V in the Falklands campaign, or Coriolanus in Bucharest during the Ceaucescu regime, or indeed King Lear on the day that John Major castigated the homeless in London as an eyesore. And some of Pennington’s chronological deductions are beautifully unforced, such as suggesting that the gluttonous, fashion-obsessed court of King James is a satirical target in Timon of Athens after the thinly veiled flattery of Macbeth.
Pennington starts by the excitement of discovery when, aged 11, a performance of Macbeth at the Old Vic (Paul Rogers and Ann Todd) quite dispels his enthusiasm for Tottenham Hotspur. With an actor’s insight, he suggests that Shakespeare, in his “missing” years, could have just as easily run away with the touring players as serve as a soldier, a sailor or a government spy, which are the more common theories.
It’s an attractive idea. That sense of “discovering” the theatre informs how Pennington sees Flute’s Thisbe in The Dream, where the actor suddenly finds himself able to still an audience with his farewell to Pyramus, not guying the lines. He relishes above all the Shakespearean mix of high and low, great verse and rough speech, and the artistry with which he oscillates between the two levels with no crashing of gears.
He treats us to wonderfully lucid recitals of great speeches of Berowne, Gloucester at the end of Henry VI, Hamlet and Antony. And he strikes at the heart of Shakespeare’s poetic genius in the expertly inflected dialogues of Touchstone and Corin, Shallow and Silence, the sleepy Barnadine and his prison officer in Measure for Measure.
In all of this, it is Shakespeare’s humanity that Pennington celebrates, his greatness of spirit. And the actor does so with such wit and intelligence, you feel genuinely grateful that such a career has been sustained over 40 years from Cambridge to the RSC, and from the English Stage Company he ran with Michael Bogdanov to his easy, unforced eminence. Bravo!