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A CurtainUp London London Review
Sweet William

Now when [performing] I see a bespectacled 11-year old in the front row, it doesn't half raise my game. — Michael Pennington.
Michael Pennington was 11-years old when he saw, unwillingly, his first Shakespeare play. It changed his life. Now, a few decades on, he stands alone on a bare stage and tells us how this happened, and what he has learnt since, in a one-man show based on the life and works of the man who "did all that with a feather".

If your hackles rise at the sound of one-man show or 'Shakespeare', do whatever you must to stuff them back down again for this evening is a treat for anyone with the slightest interest in theatre, language, poetry, or people. Pennington's fascination with Shakespeare is not an eccentric obsession or some flaunted guild mystery, but something rooted deep in love, and life itself. Shakespeare has illuminated him and now he tries to return the favour.

Over two hours Pennington stands and chats to us, like that relaxed avuncular lecturer we wish we'd had for more courses, about Shakespeare's career, breaking off to act out gobbets from the poetry and plays to support his points. Anyone with the slightest interest in acting will learn much from watching this alone. Pennington effortlessly slides in and out of voice, character and emotion as if digitally edited by a huge NASA-style control room. That's method for you. But these are quiet pyrotechnics, always at the service of his theme - the Life and Works - about which he is consistently illuminating.

Despite his modest demeanour - perhaps the greatest act of the evening, since his technique is formidable - Pennington seems to be a man with a mission. He wants to save Shakespeare from his deadly enemies: the academics and the fantasists.

The latter he deals with by sticking closely to what is actually known about Shakespeare, i.e., not a lot, despite what Germaine Greer has written lately about Mrs S. He charitably avoids the Shakespeare deniers, such as Judge Christmas Humphreys who found it "offensive to our national dignity, and to our sense of fair play to worship the memory of a petty-minded tradesman while leaving the actual author of the Shakespeare plays and poems unhonoured and ignored." (Humphreys thought the plays must have been written by the Earl of Oxford and found them "of far more interest when seen as the work of a great nobleman.".But then he did help to convict the last woman hanged in Britain.) However, Pennington can't resist repeating the old gossip that his hero died of a chill after a late-night booze-up: too good a story to pass up. On the other hand, Pennington must know about, but discreetly dodges, the mountain - nay, Himalayan range - of interpretation produced by scholars of the world's universities. Instead he plays to his strength - the working actor's eye, hand, and ear - to help us understand the nuts and bolts of what made, and makes, Shakespeare special. How he seizes on character, joins 'high' and 'low', casts a cold, clear eye on love, and knows when NOT to use his gift of the gab. How Mistress Quickly's love turns her tongue to mush; how common folk achieve sublimity; how great lovers are more likely to bicker than eulogise: how Lear's final speech, arguably a precis of Samuel Beckett's entire oeuvre, turns on a single button.

Pennington uses his own experience of the strolling player's life to illuminate the sonnets and follows Schapiro in detailing Shakespeare's role in stealing an entire building overnight in a manner worthy of an early Batman cartoon. There is nothing approaching a dull moment in the entire two hours. (Though one wishes Pennington might have said a little more about the "great" plays. Perhaps he felt this was too obvious and we should do that work for ourselves.) Without a grand stage, a cast of dozens, carefully choreographed signing, dancing and fighting, there is more power and pleasure here than in a dozen plays one might have seen. There were no 11 year olds to be inspired at tonight's performance, but one hopes there have been, and will be, and that the torch will be passed on.

Editor's Note: We usually don't review plays that have practically finished their run, as this one has, but are posting it so American readers can get an idea as to what to expect when Pennington takes his show to America.

Written and performed by Michael Pennington At the carbon-neutral Arcola Theatre E8, nearest rail Dalston, till December 8th, 2007.
Run time: 2 hours, with a 20 minute interval.
American tour dates to be announced.
Reviewed by Brian Clover on the 3rd December, 2007

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