by Dan Zeff
February 5, 2009
★ ★ ★ ★
Michael Pennington is giving a master class in Shakespeare at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. It’s an event not to be missed by anyone with an interest in the Bard, which is to say, all serious theatergoers.
Pennington has been one of England’s leading classical actors for a generation, a performer and director familiar to CST audiences from Chicago appearances with his English Shakespeare Company. He calls his one-man show Sweet William, a distillation of more than half a century of watching, studying, and performing Shakespeare.
Pennington estimates he’s spent 20,000 hours in Shakespeare plays on world stages, and that doesn’t include rehearsals, personal reading, and authoring several books on the dramas and comedies. Clearly the man’s credentials are in order when it comes to an informed discussion of Shakespeare’s life and works.
Pennington presents his show as a personal verbal essay. He performs on a bare stage, the only prop being a throne-like wooden chair (a red handkerchief is also used to great effect in one scene). Pennington dresses casually in slacks and a sport shirt. The minimalist presentation fits perfectly in the CST’s intimate Upstairs Theater, where the two-hour production assumes the form of an informal living room chat.
Pennington dates his love of Shakespeare back to his first exposure to the playwright at the age of 11 when his parents took him to see Macbeth. It was love at first sight (and hearing) and the springboard to a distinguished theater career.
The actor organizes Sweet William as a chronological trip through Shakespeare’s life from his birth in Stratford to his theater years in London and then his retirement and death back in Stratford. Along the way Pennington injects asides and anecdotes as well as swatches from the plays and sonnets to illustrate particular points.
Unlike some one-man shows devoted to Shakespeare, Sweet William is not a survey of the playwright’s greatest hits (all those famous soliloquies that practically invite the audience to recite along with the actor). Pennington mines the riches of lesser known plays such as Timon of Athens, A Winter’s Tale, Henry VI, Part 3, and Troilus and Cressida. When he does explore the better-known works, he selects telling but less familiar passages to illuminate his thoughts.
Pennington has spent a lifetime steeping himself in Shakespeare’s life and times and he isn't afraid to speculate where the factual record is sparse or nonexistent. He speaks persuasively about how the man might have spent the so-called “lost years” from 1585 to 1592. He analyzes how the social and cultural scene in Elizabethan London impacted on Shakespeare’s writing and how the ascension of James I, with his hedonistic court, turned Shakespeare’s plays darker and more cynical.
Sweet William may be an extended lecture but it avoids the taint of an academic exercise through Pennington’s ingratiating stage presence and his canny selection of material that makes Shakespeare’s life and works come alive with fresh information and stimulating insights. It should be stressed that Sweet William caters to spectators who know and care about Shakespeare, but that will be the profile of the typical CST audience. It’s doubtful that any patrons will stumble into the Upstairs Theater expecting a performance of Xanadu.
The bottom line is that Pennington delivers an adult show in the best sense of that abused term. He’s great company, droll and knowledgeable and gently opinionated. A most entertaining and literate evening.