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What a glorious marriage of two theatrical institutions. The Little Angel Theatre, Islington, the spiritual and actual home of the finest of British puppetry, has broadened its dramatic appeal by inviting that veteran of Shakespearean acting, Michael Pennington, to stage his one-man tribute to William Shakespeare, Sweet William.
The Little Angel is such an intimate and inviting space. Where better to spend a drizzly summer’s evening in the company of Pennington. The dark auditorium and serried ranks of cushioned pews were packed with young and old alike as Pennington embarked on a theatrical journey that spanned his own, and his hero’s, lifetimes. Dressed by nothing more than a finely-wrought Victorian chair, the stage provided the simplest and most complementary backdrop for this journey.
Pennington’s style is so easy and relaxed, so immediately endearing, that it belies the incredible discipline and skill that such an intimate expression of acting demands. Immediately, Pennington lets us into his personal secret. As a young 11 year-old schoolboy he was forced, albeit not actually kicking and screaming, but almost, to a production of Macbeth at the Young Vic. This meeting with Shakespeare was to change his life forever.
After more years than we would care to mention, Pennington can confirm that he has spent over twenty thousand hours so far recreating Shakespearean drama, for himself and his public. Sweet William celebrates this ‘love-affair’ perfectly.
Interspersed with snippets from well-known and not-so-well-known Shakespearean plays, Sweet Williamexplores the life and times of Shakespeare with fascinating clarity and simplicity, as well as gloriously irreverent humour. This is no glorification of the Bard, but an evocation of a man of his times, who could be as “sizeist, sexist, xenophobic and dirty-minded,” to use Pennington’s own words, as the worst of us.
Pennington describes what little we know of Shakespeare’s early life as a well-paid jobbing actor, desperate to put his own words into his colleagues mouths. In the process, Pennington displays his talent for character-study and mimicry. One moment childish prince, the next distraught Egyptian queen, Pennington brings these characters to life with an immediacy that is, to say the least, breathtaking.
Most poignant, however, is the actor’s portrayal of the waning years of Shakespeare’s creative process, reflected in the pathos of a dying Lear or the reminiscences of a native Warwickshire. Pennington’s own acting career and his desire to re-politicize the texts for a modern audience is reflected in these evocations of a lifetime’s work. It has not been work for Pennington; it has been a passion.
Sweet William should be added to the National Curriculum as a must-see production for all school-age (and adult) children. You will never get a better introduction to Shakespeare or a more passionate exploration of his drama and poetry. Pennington’s love-letter to a dear friend is unique in its originality and worthy of the packed houses which this opening night at the Little Angel Theatre portends.
Kevin Quarmby © 2007
Originally published on R&V 22-08-07
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