In the company of The Bard

Michael Pennington, St John’s Chapel, Saturday, July 7, 2.30pm.

When he totted it up, Michael Pennington reached the figure that in rehearsal and in performance, he had spent something like twenty thousand hours in the company of William Shakespeare.

Michael, who returns to Chichester later this summer to play Antony in Antony And Cleopatra at the CFT, accounts for those hours in his book Sweet William which he will discuss tonight for the Chichester Festivities.

“It was Shakespeare who got me into this business in the first place,” Michael recalls. “When I was ten or 11, I got stage-struck exactly at the time that the Old Vic was going through the whole canon of Shakespeare’s work in the mid-50s. I saw some Shakespeare, and that was it. I suppose it was at that time that he gained squatting rights in my life.

“Going to see Macbeth at the Old Vic in 1955 had the impact on me that rock ‘n’ roll would have on you at that age. There was something in the language that absolutely knocked my socks off. It wasn’t just the music. It was the pulse. It was at a time when Shakespeare productions were very strong, down-the-line productions, very unabashedly theatrical. There was a lot of blood, and the comedy was very broad. It was very frontal. It wasn’t clever-directorial Shakespeare.”

And the impact was huge. Michael recalls many years later taking Macbeth to an audience of a thousand ghetto kids in Chicago. The barracking at the start was such that they nearly pulled the production. But after half an hour, the youngsters were watching in rapt silence.

The point is that they were seeing Shakespeare in action – somewhere we go, or perhaps used to go, so wrong. Michael recalls nearly being put off Shakespeare for life when studying it for O’ levels: “It was as dry as dust.”

It was just wisdom handed down by the teacher.

Michael is sure plenty of teachers and lecturers have now realised past mistakes: they’ve seen the need to make Shakespeare a fully participatory experience, to bring it to life.

Michael’s point is that you have got to see it, experience it, speak it, be in it, be part of it: “You have got to actually taste it on your tongue…”