Sweet William @ Hampstead Theatre, London

devised and performed by
Michael Pennington
Actor Michael Pennington has spent over 20,000 hours performing the works of Shakespeare.

First performed in 2006, his show Sweet William provides a unique insight into the man and his writing from a performer’s perspective.

This is one of two one-man shows (the other is Anton Chekhov) that he’s performing at Hampstead Theatre this week, though he has been touring with them for some time now and this isn’t the first time he’s brought this piece to the London stage.
Sweet William presents Pennington’s highly personal take on Shakespeare’s life and works. His central argument is that, whilst in his plays Shakespeare presented some of the most beautiful poetry ever written, his genius also lay in his ability to capture in words the most basic of human emotions.

Pennington’s performance style reflects perfectly the point he is making. He applies brilliant theatrical technique to his delivery, whilst also giving his presentation a highly informal and natural feel. When he talks about Shakespeare’s life, one gains a strong sense of real events happening to a real person. As he describes the baby Shakespeare being carried to Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon for his baptism, the event feels as recent as that of the teenage Pennington being dragged kicking and screaming to his first Shakespeare play (only then to become hooked on the Bard).

Pennington works his way through Shakespeare’s life, introducing various points about his writings along the way. To illustrate these he frequently delivers, with copybook precision, passages from the plays, and he does not always stick to the most popular ones. For example, when making points about youth, he presents an exchange from The Winter’s Tale between King Leontes and his son, Mamillius, to show how the boy Mamillius has juxtaposed certain adult attitudes onto his own innocent stance.

Pennington argues that both Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare were capable of writing high poetry, but only the latter could contrast this with intrinsically human detail. So, for example, it is highly significant that Mistress Quickly when saying goodbye to Falstaff in Henry IV, part II can recall that she has known him for twenty-nine (and not twenty-five or thirty) years.

Pennington similarly illustrates how in A Midsummer Night’s Dream the lowlife actor Flute (as the character Thisbe) mourns the loss of Pyramus with words that are relatively basic, but extremely human. He also invites us to picture how an original Shakespearean audience would have responded to hearing these, and in the process teaches us much about Elizabethan theatre. He suggests that with the large audience standing so close to the action, actors would have needed to have adopted expressions and gestures comparable to those required by modern cinema.

In the second half, Pennington suggests that as Shakespeare got older he grew less interested in heroes, and particularly loved to see fools triumph. So, when the Duke in Measure for Measure orders the prisoner Barnardine to be executed, Barnardine turns the tables on him by rejecting the Duke’s ‘offer’! Similarly, whereas once Romeo and Juliet died as lovers, thus triumphing over the circumstances that conspired against them, now Troilus and Cressida succumb to these by accepting separation over death.

We also gain an insight into how the politics of the day affected Shakespeare’s plays. For example, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth to please the new Scottish King, James I, but he had to substitute Banquo for Lady Macbeth as Macbeth’s co-conspirator in the murder of King Duncan. This is because the real life Banquo had actually been one of James’s own ancestors. Similarly, Timon of Athens was never performed in Shakespeare’s lifetime because exposing (as it did) the hollow decadence of James I’s court would simply have been too risky.

After presenting such incredible insights into Shakespeare’s plays, Pennington then concludes with a remarkably down-to-earth assessment of what Shakespeare can still do for us. He can, Pennington suggests, unite five hundred or a thousand people at a time, simply with his words, and he demands each of us to interact with others as we leave our homes, enter the theatre, and unite for a while in a shared humanity.

It is a beautifully humble conclusion to so insightful a play, and it only helps to mark this piece out as as near perfect as any one-man show could ever hope to be.

Michael Pennington’s second one-man show, Anton Chekhov, is being performed at the Hampstead Theatre on 26 and 29 November 2008. Following its current run at the Hampstead, ‘Sweet William’ will continue to tour, visiting the Chicago Shakespeare Theater in February 2009 and then travelling to Australia.

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