Browse reviews

Fringe Online 2021

Low Down

Written and performed by Michael Pennington.

Camera work from several angles (Director Mark Swadel, Operator Balazs Weidner), including seventy-five degrees overhead, are deftly sequenced. Till July 31st.


Does Shakespeare hit us like a thunderbolt as it did Berlioz, or a hammer as with Michael Pennington? With this last JST Footprints Festival (bar the added Odyssey on Sunday) we come full circle to where we started in May: from Pennington’s Anton Chekhov to Pennington’s greatest love of all.

A truly great Shakespearean with one of the most distinctive voices of the past 40 years, whose Prospero was halted by a real pestilence and later for JST an inundation, Pennington pauses here before he returns to that role here in The Tempest, for November and December. There’s a glint of new learning amongst the familiarities, a gallimaufry of sweet voices.

Pennington’s Sweet William was first performed 20 years ago. He probes his love of Shakespeare from when as an eleven-year-old Tottenham Hotspur supporter he’s electrified by a performance of Macbeth. Home he grabs Macbeth off the shelf, reads aloud – he can never read silently – and there follows 20,000 hours of performing Shakespeare let alone writing, lecturing about him. Every time Pennington sees an eleven or twelve-year-old he raises his game.

Sweet William’s finally moving to publication; it’s time for a gathering together of critical and inspired thinking, to ask fundamental questions to shape this book. Thus this performance is pivotal.

First – who was this man? Sweet-natured, well-made not a company-keeper, would not be debauched. We get the well-rehearsed facts of his perilous birth in Stratford where in 1564 two in three children died of the plague. There’s an enticing litany of landmarks, including shops – most curiously Iago’s Jewellers.

It’s a story we know well, though freshly-taught. Shakespeare’s own childhood was happy (Pennington evokes Stratford, his father’s glover’s shop of animal reeks mixing with lavender), though the children in his plays hardly come off well, rather like the christening shrouds of double purpose used so frequently in those days. The one masterly study – after sad and irritating children, particularly the two princes where you might side with Richard – is Mamilius. Leontes’ son in The Winter’s Tale. Leontes believes neither Mamilius nor his wife Hermione’s soon-to-born second child is his.

Mamilius first shows an unnerving prejudice common amongst Elizabethans and later that black-browed woman are promiscuous. Asked what he’d like to try himself Mamilius rejoins:‘A sad tale’s best for winter’- which would have been his own story had he delivered it. But it’s broken off with news of Hermione’s innocence, Leontes’ refusal to believe it and Mamilius’ death of a broken heart when he thinks his mother’s dead.

As for his lost years Pennington’s fairly sure Shakespeare joined the Queen’s Men with titles he later took for his own: The Taming of a Shrew for instance. The sort of man who’d make himself unpopular by complaining about the texts. Not calculated to make him loved.

Some of Shakespeare’s early life is to be seen in the sonnets. addressed to both a woman and a beauteous man. A 1640 edition nervously re-gendered those addressed to the young man. More puritan times. Well for the next 360 years. We get one sonnet that might touch Anne Hathaway as Shakespeare being faithful in his fashion.

We don’t though pause on the sonnets, but move through the plays, like Berowne in Love’s Labour’s Lost, heady with idealism and by contrast  The Comedy of Errors, a virtuoso apprentice-work. With real sour ‘prentices – the voice of London roars out and Pennington thrills with his immigrant Dromio description of the female cook his twin-double Dromio is affianced to, in a nethering map of exuberant misogyny. Mmm. But it’s authentic. The 1590s London Shakespeare was writing for was the most ethnically diverse audience till now.

Theatrically Shakespeare arrived at exactly the right time. New purpose-built structures rose just outside the city limits. Often theatre-owners were brothel owners. The placing of ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ as parts of these early theatres centred the world in a few timbers.

Actors unlike playwrights were played rather well for the times (for the last time in history!). Thus playwright-only Richard Greene’s riposte – the one ensuring the dying splenetic Oxbridge man is even remembered (well he wasn’t a bad playwright!) – leads into the original of one plucked metaphor, the ‘tiger’s heart wrapped in a players/woman’s hide’ – Henry VI/3. Which was a hit, to Greene’s chagrin, hence his parody of it. However unlike Marlowe who could thunder out the rhetoric, Shakespeare could reach the pathetic and intimate seconds after.

Particularly in the murder of young Rutland and Queen Margaret’s arraigning of his father York on a molehill, his cheeks wiped with a handkerchief dipped in his son’s blood. ‘Dicky your boy who was wont to cheer his dad on to mutinies’ are lines you’d not hear from Marlowe. Not the sudden vaulting up to high elegy in York’s final speech using that trope of ‘tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide.’ No-one had heard anything like it before.

We’re thus catapulted forward to Lear’s ‘prithee undo this button’ and Mistress Quickly’s intimate farewell to Falstaff in Henry IV ’29 years come peas-code time’ the particularity and banality craft a pathos. Pennington recalls the Rose Theatre’s excavation: despite 2,000 capacity its tightness and intimacy means the actors roared their rags into the audience’s mouths. Shakespeare alone of his contemporaries manages both the magnificence and the mundane, and their unique juxtaposition a few words apart is unique even now. Its detonation in such intimate spaces can be imagined. Lawyers and groundlings taking away not just themselves but their opposites too.

Richard III is the first of those loners and outsiders who Pennington feels brings forth the finest writing – their monologues and confidings to an audience, given their disconnect at some level with the other characters. There’s Falstaff. His surrogate son and cruel betrayer Henry V who seems little in love. Yet suddenly in his own next play Henry’s self-revelation testing Katherine moves into eloquence. Monologues and the power of the theatre to transform were two Shakespearean go-tos for changing hearts.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream heralds just such a scene in a whisper after the heckled Pyramus and Thisbe. Flute’s final soliloquy is electrifying, Flute becoming suddenly an actor and affecting the on-stage audience there and of course us, the wider one. The silence is implied in the script. The language, homespun is the country tongue Shakespeare knew intimately. And Shakespeare was just half-way (by which I think Pennington means not 1595 as here, but by the end of Henry V in 1599) –

and it’s the interval.

After the eleven-minute interval Pennington moves briefly to his own company (English Shakespeare Company) founded with Michael Bogdanoff about how to share and project Shakespeare. Not to allow people to sit on the fence.

Would it help with Romeo and Juliet – two halves of the world in effect, to get their families round a table? Would Hamlet have been a good man and bad king, but Claudius the reverse, and isn’t that preferable for his subjects?

Modern costumes might have been the most obvious but there’s cops with Coriolanus in 1989 Rumania, mid-80s Richard III with a battery of computer screens. Very advanced then, with ‘Ed dead’ news-stand signs. Hong Kong officials were particularly nervous with all the fake military material.

This terror of a menacing mob was close to Shakespeare’s practice. Back in Shakespeare’s day Elizabeth I was surprised by a 1598 letter complaining of a riot led by Shakespeare and Richard Burbage the Olivier of his day whom Pennington trusts could roar out a bombast greater than the rest.

This was over the dispute of the lease of the theatre (known as The Theatre) and the famous snatching of all the theatre to reassemble six months on as on 12th June 1599 the Globe opens. We’re back to Henry V and the wooden O which betrays a complete confidence in affrighting anyone. After all they’d used guerrilla tactics to snatch the raw materials for the Globe. Setting the scene in Illyiria in Twelfth Night, or the Prologue in Troilus and Cressida in Troy. Self-referencing, pointing up the theatre’s self-conscious fiction climaxes in that self-delighting Hamlet soliloquy ‘what’s he to Hecuba?’ The soliloquy form’s challenging ever more provocative.

The ripostes are now on the other side – Corin’s ripostes to Touchstone who thought himself a wit in As You like It. Shakespeare always flipped such expectations but does it far more henceforward, in Hamlet with the gravedigger, Lear with the Fool and in Act IV of Measure For Measure in Barnadine with the Duke. ‘I will not be hanged on any man’s persuasion.’ There’s a quality here that though as Pennington says it doesn’t turn Shakespeare into a Marxist, asks perilous questions.

Though moving to great tragedies he’s less concerned now with great heroes. More, he concentrates on their folly and women come to the fore to proclaim this. Lear’s mad divisions, Othello, Posthumous and Leontes believing their wives false. The besotted Antony, the bonehead Coriolanus.

The Duke in Measure For Measure finding silence from Isabella provokes what to do with their ending. It’s increasingly the women who step forward in the second half of Shakespeare’s career, from Rosalind, and increasingly through problem plays tragedies and romances. They have to answer and suffer male blunders and somehow resolve them. The female principle is infinitely in advance of the male.

There’s divigation on James I’s coronation and the contrast between a magnificence and the massive death-toll of the 1603-04 plague which killed for instance Will Kemp. No more Scottish jokes (as The Comedy of Errors had) and Shakespeare plied James with Macbeth. Banquo in reality was a co-plotter – not Lady Macbeth – but founded the Stuart line so gets whitewashed. Patronage was welcome and James gifted Shakespeare a moral ambiguity the dramatist played with.

Timon of Athens was more dangerous.  This is the one Middleton had a hand in (Macbeth and Measure for Measure posthumously in sprucings-up). Shakespeare was never a city comedy or tragedy writer and the young Middleton excelled in these genres. In Jacobean times Shakespeare tries to catch the conscience of the king – Spanish names in Othello despite the peace with Spain. The Moor though is the one noble man there.

There’s reasons then why Timon was never mounted in Shakespeare’s lifetime. It’s too close to the Jacobean Court in satire, too keen in pointing up the ambiguities, moral, sexual, regal.

John Major’s lambasting the homeless in London 35 years ago seems to have had Shakespeare listening to the radio that morning rewriting Lear at the moment as that night Robert Stephens in the title role talks of the poor in Lear’s great speech. ‘Poor naked wretches whe’ere you are.. houseless in this piteous storm…. shake the superflux to them and show the heavens more just…’ And the ‘Through tattered clothes small vices do appear;/ Robes and furred gowns hide all’ might have made the rich shudder even in 1606.

From middle-age love stories are either not central or somehow mistimed. The great lovers in Antony and Cleopatra speak their striding declarations not to each other but off stage, they try outdoing each other too, even as Antony botches suicide and they trump each other in his dying speeches. And Cleopatra’s question on her speech ending ‘Think you of such a man I dream  of?’ is sweetly rebuked by Dolabella: ‘Gentle madam, no.’ Helena from All’s Well is little more than a stalker. Coriolanus’ wife is he deems ‘my gracious silence’ and spends more time with his mother. Troilus and Cressida is the story of a Trojan woman thrust suddenly on the wrong side of Greek/Trojan negotiations with no choice, no agency; traded against her will where sexual choice has no place. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, who changed the story of Verona with their deaths,  these lovers live on separate, un-regarded and with no agency in their world at all.

Mortality girt round Shakespeare: an actor brother Edmund, a sister, a son a father. Thus A Winter’s Tale and the story of Perdita found as her conductor is torn apart by a bear: ‘Thou mets with things dying, I of things newborn.’ Pericles with the casting away of the titular hero’s wife, Ariel’s songs, are all great songs of miraculous recovery through deception.

There’s the burning down of the first Globe, , with a Will Kemp-like scene of a man drowning the fire – but in his breeches – with a bottle of ale the only minor casualty. Shakespeare’s retirement on cue. He certainly used Warwickshire names throughout and even spelling like ‘scilens’ for silence.

Perhaps there’s something ruminantly close with Henry IV with Justice Shallow and Silence’s duologue with their telling their mad days with advantages (not ‘mad Shallow but lusty Shallow, Silence corrects him), brinking on mortality. ‘Jesu Jesu the and days that I have spent..the mad companions dead.. all dead… all shall die.’

There’s Jonson’s and Drayton’s legendary death-drink-party where Shakespeare stumbles his way home, lost into a terminal fever. Then his summary, one he presumably made earlier – a rough self-composed epitaph as if written by Timon. All seem again designed to anonymising, leaving a clamour of voices. And as the statue suggests a final shrunk persona: a rather stern landowner with a way of hounding tenant farmers.

‘An ordinary man with his art of concealment, not an intellectual but leaves us all talented.’ This very act tonight is a civic function, civilised by theatre, made by this touch of nature more kin. .. and perhaps go home as I did at eleven and take down Macbeth and have a swing at it yourself. As Goldwyn put it. ‘Fantastic – and all written with a feather!’

How Shakespeare inflects our thinking with our own semi-recalled quotes, the very pressure of thinking – our cognitive enhancement – is the most miraculous gift of all. Pennington’s gift is to communicate its differences, its freights, humanity’s sheer blank and level. Shakespeare, Harold Bloom suggests grandly, invented the human. By which he added, Shakespeare created characters self-conscious enough to overhear themselves and indeed us.

It’s Pennington though who makes us overhear him thinking; acting Shakespeare as he did as a boy of eleven. In his forthcoming volume we can hear again someone who thinks speaking. If Shakespeare’s unknowable in himself, we see here patterns, even cognitive dissonances  that Pennington reveals.  Naturally enriched by living with Shakespeare Pennington in ninety-five minutes unearths local habitations and names for him.