by Hedy Weiss
February 6, 2009
More than two decades ago, a tireless, exceedingly handsome forty-something British actor by the name of Michael Pennington arrived here with the English Shakespeare Theater as part of the International Theater Festival of Chicago. He and his fellow actors proceeded to make their way through a modern-dress staging of six history plays at the Auditorium Theatre—a marathon event that generated enormous excitement. All those who took that journey with him and director Michael Bogdanov's troupe still remember the crazy exhilaration of the undertaking.
Now Pennington has returned to this city, for which he retains great affection, with his one-man show Sweet William. And clearly he remains as obsessed with William Shakespeare as ever—an obsession that first took hold when he was 11 and saw a production of Macbeth.
In Sweet William, which opened Wednesday night in the intimate confines of Chicago Shakespeare's Upstairs Theater—on a stage with nothing but a spotlight and a handsome gothic chair to suggest a modest throne—Pennington weaves a lovely, often revelatory tapestry that draws on the life and times and writings of Shakespeare. Along the way, he injects his own particular insights into the man, gained from years of performing his characters, and from musing on the many hidden meanings and references to be found in his plays.
The actor also gives us many lovely, wide-ranging snapshots from Shakespeare's canon (including bits of the sonnets), with especially touching portrayals of several of Shakespeare's child characters and women.
It is the intriguingly detailed and insightful chronicle of the world through which Shakespeare walked that in many ways is the most fascinating aspect of this two-hour, two-act show—a production that is never didactic, but seems to flow in much the same way as Shakespeare's storytelling. Pennington clearly has learned from the master.
The actor reminds us that relatively little is known about Shakespeare himself, though much is recorded about the Elizabethan age and the reign of King James during which the playwright's London career thrived. So Pennington leads us through the actor-writer's life, hypothesizing as necessary. Shakespeare's birth, in 1564, occurred during a period of the plague. His marriage to Anne Hathaway at 18 was followed by the birth of a daughter and then fraternal twins (recall the plays populated by such twined siblings). His periods of "disappearance" as a young man might have been connected to the fact that he was Catholic in England at a time when that could be dangerous, but they also might have simply been times when he worked as part of a troupe of touring actors (a life Pennington, too, knows well).
We get a vivid picture of the London that Shakespeare encountered when he arrived there in his late 20s and began writing for the theater—the diversity, the crowds, the tensions of the city, even its smells. Pennington expertly conjures Shakespeare's distinctive ability to capture the speech of both high society (royalty and courtiers) and low (the common laborers), and everything in between. And he is at his best when considering Shakespeare's final years, and giving us the most exquisite rendering of the country justice, Robert Shallow, recounting his mischievous salad days despite an awareness of age and mortality.
Pennington never even raises the theory that Shakespeare's plays might have been penned by someone else. But he does leave us to contemplate the enduring mystery of how one man could have possessed such genius. What more can you ask?