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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Trafalgar Studios 2

By Matt Wolf

  Michael Pennington

Michael Pennington has an annuity for as long as he wants one courtesy Sweet William, the veteran actor's entirely engaging and witty solo play paying extended homage to that greatest of all Willies - the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon. At once the best sort of classroom lecture and a seamless example of the thespian art, Pennington's two-hour show should be essential viewing for all students of Shakespeare, not to mention those who simply want or need a reminder of the sheer applicability of his canon to the way we lived then and still do now: at one point, Pennington talks as if Shakespeare had been listening to the radio that morning, so up-to-the-minute is his anatomy of human behaviour. Lacking a director or any scenery beyond a chair from which Pennington rises on occasion to keep stasis at bay, the evening is a natural for the touring and/or university circuit, which would be lucky to have him (and it). One assumes that an actor's passion drives his (or her) thespian pursuits, but Pennington writes that enthusiasm in clear and infinitely affecting klieg lights. This is at once arguably the least extravagant show in town and among the most moving.

The structure, as devised by Pennington, moves seamlessly from a potted biography of the playwright, reminding us of Shakespeare's dual existence as an actor, into an exegesis of numerous passages and key characters from the plays - not always the most obvious ones, either. Those who haven't seen Henry IV - Part 2 may be especially taken by a heart-stopping exchange confirming my affection for Justice Shallow as one of the great, underheralded characters in all of Shakespeare, and Pennington is particularly interesting on the meaning embedded in this writer's nomenclature: Spanish names (Roderigo), for instance, as indices of foolishness amid the gathering tragedy that is Othello. Henry V's attitude towards the ladies is cunningly charted, relevant passages thrown in to show the sudden interest in romance late in the play that bears his name of a military man who otherwise doesn't seem to give the fairer sex much of a look-in. Sweet William is at once informative - Pennington reminds us that Timon of Athens was never performed during Shakespeare's lifetime - and quietly eloquent: That's the deal in Shakespeare the sollioquizer never tells a lie, notes Pennington in the kind of pithy reckoning you can carry with you to your next exposure to the Bard.

And heavens, how the show leaves you appreciating anew Shakespeare's language, a superabundance of riches that Pennington reports has crept into every corner of his consciousness. One is made aware of the writer's evenhandedness - that's to say his gift for characters both high and low - and the ways in which Shakespeare's own performing instincts informed his characters: the first-act ends with a touching precis of Flute in A Midsummer Night's Dream as that play's truly proper actor, the Mechanical whose sincerity dissolves the multiple barriers erected in a text that keeps four disparate worlds on the go. Pennington's qualifications at this late date in his career scarcely need restating, though it's fascinating to hear him talk of seeing Paul Rogers and Ann Todd many decades ago at the Old Vic as the Macbeths and to know that he has spent over 20,000 hours of (!) of his life performing this single playwright. How did his apprenticeship to the Bard begin? Shakespeare hit me like a hammer when I was 11 years old, Pennington reports, the poet/playwright putting to one side an obviously precociously bright pre-pubescent's ongoing interest in football. I don't know that young audiences today - indeed, audiences of any age - will compare Penn


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