by Michael Pennington
If Jaques was right about the Seven Ages of Man, then having spent my First in routine mewling and puking, my Second was not so much as the whining schoolboy but as a thoroughly narrow-minded teenager so blown away by a visit to Macbeth that very soon he had seen or read most of the plays aloud. So it was that to my own satisfaction, and unthreatened by any audience, I had by age fifteen played everything from the Bawd in Pericles to Old Adam, from Titus Andronicus to Falstaffís Page; which I suppose has saved a lot of time learning the lines later. Perhaps Iíll do some of them tonight.
As for the Third Age, in due course I was the Lover, sighing like furnace as the Mercutios and Richard IIs and Berownes—Shakespeareís great young lyricists I did at the RSC during the 1970s; and if I went on to the military Fourth, it was as a hardened campaigner, uttering strange oaths and sometimes bearded like the pard, as I battled to assert my views through my own and Michael Bogdanovís outfit, the English Shakespeare Company. Just as in a war, this was when I really started to learn something: from playing in Richard III in East Berlin in 1989, towards the end of the Honecker regime, to an appalled silence, since the sight of Richardís iron fist gleaming inside his velvet glove was not the merry joke it can be to Western audiences but a daily fact. Or from encouraging a ten-year-old boy playing Julietís father in a London comprehensive, as he uttered that terrible attack on his daughter for refusing to marry Paris; he suddenly grasped the pain not of being a misunderstood young lover but of being the middle-aged parent whom nobody seems to obey. From being partly responsible for a production of The Tempest in Maidstone high security prison, seeing people who never imagined him to be a friend suddenly enfranchised by the physical action of speaking Shakespeare—especially Calibanís love of finding a jayís nest or catching the nimble marmoset. No wonder the screws were uneasy—this wasnít something to be taken away by the slam of a door. From finding that directing a middle-aged Japanese actor as Toby Belch in Twelfth Night with a Tokyo company exorcised his instinctive dislike of English writers and directors that he thought was permanent since the War—as we stumbled through the smoke of the yakitori barbecue feeling the fizz of the Suntory the night before the opening he declared that at last Shakespeare had brought us together.
Because of course thatís exactly what he does, both with each other and in ourselves, and the fact is Iíve been round the block several times with him, from Buckingham Palace to the British Academy to dodging the rats falling from the rafters in Mumbai. So in my Fifth Age (and never mind the fair round belly), it may be time for a celebration.
Sweet William is, I hope, a many-coloured coat of prejudice, enthusiasm and instinct. As in my show about another great writer, Anton Chekhov, it approaches its elusive hero with due caution, but, I am told, with a palpable affection and even a sidelong sense of kinship—not as a writer of course, but as someone I have after all known all my life. So you wonít be hearing a daisy chain of his Greatest Hits so much as some of his biography and mine, giving rise to some fairly unfamiliar pieces as well as the justly famous ones.
We say Shakespeare is universal, but really thatís a figure of speech: to a large part of the world he is as unlikely as a square meal. We say he is the great humanist, but he isnít really that either—dozens of his characters go to undeserved deaths for theatrical effect without a trace of authorial regret. But language came out of him like a floodtide—rapturous, funny, turbulent and simple—as he gave breath to a throng of voices like some great ventriloquist.
And he just keeps on rolling, more popular than ever. Renault and Levis use him to advertise new cars and 501 Jeans. His words have been co-opted by politicians of every complexion—a desperate measure, since he never expresses an opinion of his own. Who knows how many books about the plays are published every year. Iíve done three myself—and my publisher says Iíll be able to do all thirty-seven, which only shows he has no sense of time. The M40 announces Warwickshire as Shakespeareís county. We, television and the newspapers, quote from him, knowingly or not, most days. So although he needs little help from me, this show represents where Iíve got with him so far. And as for the Sixth and Seven ages, please watch this space.