Michael Pennington is bringing his superb one-man show, Sweet William to the Little Angel Theatre, Islington, London this August. In it, Pennington explores the influence of a writer with whom he has had a very personal relationship since the age of eleven. "It all started when I went and saw Paul Rogers and Ann Todd in Macbeth at the Old Vic. That was in 1955." Pennington chuckles at having given away his age so easily. "Since then, Shakespeare has been a major part of my life." Sweet William is Pennington's personal homage to 'William', although the actor is at pains to point out this is "no routine anthology show." Gone are the days when John Gielgud could make a TV series dedicated to the Ages of Man, taking the opportunity to play his greatest hits: "Gielgud was just displaying his own splendour -- my show is something completely different."
Of course, Pennington is no stranger to appearing in glorious isolation on stage. "I have a history of solo plays. I presented one about Chekhov -- full of elaborate costumes and lighting. With Sweet William, I wanted to get back to something much simpler -- just the actor and some light and a wonderful space." Pennington has worked with the best. Sir Peter Hall and Michael Bogdanov are two directors he respects and admires. Now it is time to tell Shakespeare's story on his own, though. "We know quite a lot about Shakespeare's life, it's just that we can never know enough!" Pennington adds that "life was so different in Elizabeth's time -- there is so much fascinating biographical information."
This is not to suggest that Sweet William is straightforward historical biography or a simple monologue of various Shakespearean excerpts. Far from it. Shakespeare, so Pennington tells me, is the "bindweed -- I often digress about my own theatrical experiences." Fascinating as these digressions are sure to be, Pennington is adamant that he doesn't want it to be a "luvvy show!" What we are introduced to are occasionally obscure and enlightening passages from plays like Henry VI, Pericles and A Winter's Tale: "I have almost wilfully chosen speeches which are unfamiliar, but the root is in the narrative -- the narrative is me and Shakespeare and the business of Shakespeare."
Early on in the creative process, Pennington asked his agent how best to describe Sweet William. With surprising insight and poetic flair (sorry to all you erudite agents reading this), Pennington's suggested, "It is like your love letter to your best friend." Now that's what I call an agent worth the percentage.
"It's a play in two halves, about 45 minutes each way -- and just me," adds Pennington, talking about the logistics of performance. It is surprising to hear the 'just' word when describing Pennington's presence at the Little Angel. He has already made his mark at the venue when the RSC brought their original production of Greg Doran's Venus and Adonis. "Peter Glanville [the artistic director at the Littel Angel] has been thinking of branching out from puppet work, and he invited me to return to this wonderful theatre with Sweet William. It is so exciting and intimate working in a space that only seats 100 people. It's like doing the show as if it was in my own sitting room." The play itself has been honed over several months, with acclaimed one-off performances at festivals and theatres around the country.
When asked about the creative process, Pennington confirms that he directed himself, "although I showed it to a half a dozen trusty friends -- mostly playwrights and other actors -- just to expose it and to get a grilling." You can be sure, with Pennington's pedigree there was little 'grilling' and much support and encouragement. "Well, it sums up all that I have been up to in my acting career so far."
The most gratifying aspect of the show, apart from being invited back to the Little Angel? "Definitely the number of kids who see it and are enthralled. This is a production that speaks to all ages -- it's great for college students and graduates as well -- but everyone will, I hope, get great pleasure from my personal 'Love Letter' to Shakespeare." Sweet William is a love letter I'm sure the Bard would have been delighted to receive. Its sender, the inimitable Michael Pennington.
Kevin Quarmby © 2007