by John Beer
February 11, 2009
★ ★ ★ ★
The prospect of a one-man show on Shakespeare’s life and work may fill one with trepidation, conjuring dread specters of eighth-grade assemblies. The rather saccharine title doesn’t help Sweet William’s cause, either. But Royal Shakespeare Company veteran and English Shakespeare Company founder Pennington delivers a captivating evening, wedding the spirits of the Chicago Humanities Festival and Inside the Actors Studio, with generous dollops of Bardic performance along the way. Pennington cannily chooses the larger part of his selections from lesser-known plays: His Richard III soliloquy, for instance, comes not from the eponymous history but from the relatively obscure Henry VI, Part III, from which he also draws the chilling confrontation between the diabolical Margaret and York. Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida, and Timon of Athens all enjoy rare moments in the sun, studding the piece with revelations even for veteran Globe-watchers.
Pennington’s quick-change act impresses as he drops suddenly in and out of character, and several of his sketches are deeply affecting, his portrayal of Justices Shallow and Silence from Henry IV, Part II perhaps most so. But the real fascination of Sweet William lies in its demonstration that a fine Shakespearian actor must also be a kind of practical critic. Pennington tosses out an array of keenly perceptive insights into the linguistic microstructure and argumentative underpinnings of the drama. He doesn’t always forswear the temptation to drop into the kind of fulsome Bardolatry recently trademarked by Harold Bloom. It’s hard to imagine, though, a more persuasive case being made for the value of devoting one’s life to this writer and his works.