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The Latest Prince

The Sunday Telegraph, July 1980, Daniel Farson

To be asked to play Hamlet at Stratford-upon-Avon must be one of the really big achievements in the life of any rising actor. At the start of his ten weeks of rehearsing, Michael Pennington, 36, was already a man apart, with the rather exalted loneliness of a contender training for a record attempt. He soon found everyone expected him to be different and wondered if he should be seen brooding on the banks of the Avon, having what he calls “a fit of the Hamlets”.

By the end of the year Pennington will have played the Prince in front of 100 audiences. His entire life is likely to be absorbed by the part for the next two years. Hamlet has already cost him the chance to play the lead opposite Meryl Streep in Karel Reisz’s film of John Fowles’s novel ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’, with possible stardom and a fee of something like £40,000. His Royal Shakespeare Company salary slightly exceeds £300 a week.

But Pennington has no regrets about his choice. “I realised I couldn’t let go. It is one of the prizes.”

The quest may be said to have started one night at the Old Vic when he was eleven years old. His family had no theatrical tradition. His Welsh father was a Chancery lawyer until his semi-retirement, since when he has been a legal adviser to Shell, and his parents took him along just for the experience. The play was ‘Macbeth’, with Paul Rogers. “My life changed that evening,” says Pennington. To his parents’ amazement and slight dismay, he thereupon insisted on seeing every Old Vic production. “By 15 I knew almost the entire canon.”

At Marlborough College, where acting displaced earlier dreams of starring at sports, he once played Prospero in a hired cloak allegedly worn by John Gielgud. “I was tremendously proud till I realised so many others had worn it since then that there was practically nothing left.”

At Cambridge he played in no fewer than 30 undergraduate productions in three years, spending so little time reading English at Trinity that he was relieved to achieve a Second Class degree after four weeks’ cramming. He never went to drama school, but was taken on straight away for spear carrying at Stratford, where he stayed for two years. “I felt, presumptuously perhaps, that I was ready for greater things after that.”

It was at Cambridge where he was born, that he had his first shot at Hamlet, in a university production. “I was 20 and very intense. I thought Hamlet was going to be nervous-breakdown material but found I really enjoyed it. I suffered grievously in the next production – ‘Hay Fever’!”

Since then he has played Fortinbras to David Warner’s Hamlet in 1965, and Laertes to Nicol Williamson’s in 1969 at the Round House – a production which transferred to New York and was then made into a film. He is, in fact, fascinated by every aspect of playing the part.

He wonders if when it was first played it was regarded as the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s career, or just another play to be added to the repertoire. He envied the thought of those fresh audiences who had never seen the play before.

Michael Pennington says the role itself is such an enigma that he will have to play it as an extension of his own personality. That personality is not easily probed. The first impression of him is one of reticence, and this remains.

He is a private man, the least actorish of actors. For nearly two years he has been living with Jane Lapotaire, of ‘Piaf’ fame, and an atmosphere of easy domesticity pervades their ground-floor flat in St John’s Wood, which also accommodates his son Mark, 13 (by his marriage, now dissolved, to Katherine Barker), and her son Rowan, seven.

While Jane Lapotaire was running up curtains on her sewing machine he spoke of his son as “a pal” and told of Rowan’s spontaneous gesture while passing the Royal Court recently. The lad stuck his tongue out and plugged his ears, because this was the home of a rival Prince of Denmark.

Among the theatrical posters and framed cartoons in the sitting room was a display card for a book which Pennington prepared and published himself. “I went to Japan with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1975 and came back slowly. This is ‘Rossya’, my diary of those days.”

The book was a labour of love, a curious mixture of a few blurred photographs taken by himself, his diary of the journey and several illustrations by his fellow RSC actor Roger Rees. Various publishers rejected the book and Pennington decided to publish it himself, even choosing the paper and arranging for the typesetting. The first print of 1,000 copies sold out at the bookstalls of the RSC and the National Theatre, as did a reprint.

Though Pennington went straight to Stratford after leaving university, he left after two years in search of greater risk and found it in such unclassical parts as the rebellious lout in Stephen Poliakoff’s ‘Pretty Boy’.  He has directed his own adaptation of Gogol’s ‘Diary of a Madman’ in a one-man show at Newcastle which lasted for two performances, but he thrilled to the experience of “flying alone”. Back at Stratford, he played a 60-year-old National Front sympathiser in David Edgar’s ‘Destiny’ and had the traumatic experience when he finished his make-up of staring at his father’s reflection in the mirror.

There was an arid patch in Pennington’s career at the start of the seventies, but in 1974 he rejoined the RSC and moved successfully through increasingly challenging parts – though he remembers drying up once after 200 performances of playing Mercutio in ‘Romeo and Juliet’. He had to skip six lines before he could carry on.

Looking back on his climb to the top he believes that he was prickly and haughty, obsessed with billing. “I hope I’m friendlier now.”

The criticism which pleased him most was when he was compared to a footballer: “the Kenny Dalglish of the classical theatre – quick on the turn and deadly accurate”; and the one which hurt was a review for his portrayal of Angelo in ‘Measure for Measure’. Describing him as a “soiled Prince Charming hot foot from the actor’s studio”.

There is a chameleon quality to Pennington’s appearance. Sitting he seems slight and short but he becomes a startling six-footer when he stands. With his fair curly hair he has the secretive looks which many women find magical, and the inevitable question arises of whether his Hamlet will be a return to the great romantic tradition. John Barton, his director at Stratford, declines to comment on the interpretation, beyond a laconic “It is time to restore the balance.”

He was much more forthcoming on Pennington’s talent, though, describing him as “equipped for the classics – he has intelligence, voice, sensitiveness, sensibility.  A very fine actor.” He paused. “I have great faith in him. He’s the person I most wanted to do ‘Hamlet’ with.” Barton has waited a long time for the right actor, and this ‘Hamlet’ will be the first at Stratford’s main theatre for ten years.

Preparing for his great test, Pennington stays 15 miles outside Stratford – “Jane, myself, the boys and the latest au pair seem to spend most of out time on the motorway.” He lives above the stables next to a stately home called Admington Hall, whose gardens have just been opened to the public.

There is a magnificent cedar, a pond, and acres of rolling countryside. The estate is owned by an American, cheerful and charming as he stops to talk, telling Pennington he has fixed up a corner of the garden which be ideal for sunbathing – “We can’t have the Prince of Denmark looking too pale!” he says airily.

It is a label Pennington cannot avoid, but he knows how lucky he is. “Some actors never get the chance at all. In the old days an actor would have several goes, but now the profession’s too overcrowded.” Also, he feels this is the right moment. “I simply wouldn’t have been ready before. But it has to be done now.” When the American producer Joe Papp suggested Britain had no young classical actors left, Pennington was cited in refutation.

Inevitably his closest friends are in the profession, yet he enjoys going to the cinema rather than the theatre itself. “Occasionally, in a fit of conscience, I spend two or three weeks seeing everything that’s on, but it’s a busman’s holiday. I look forward to it greatly, but find I don’t really enjoy it all that much. I like to walk and read, but at the moment I’m rehearsing 14 hours a day, with the exception of Sunday – a horizontal day when I do nothing but rest. It’s a hard graft.

All the same he concedes that his must be the most exciting time of his life. “I came here first when I was 15 and queued all night to see the plays. So when I saw the first yellow ‘Hamlet’ poster go up outside the theatre I did feel a frisson, I must admit.”

Jane Lapotaire is to star in Shakespeare too – as Cleopatra in a BBC production. Can Michael Pennington ever expect another year like this one?

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