King of a role for Michael Pennington at Royal & Derngate

Michael Pennington in rehearsals for King Lear

Michael Pennington in rehearsals for King Lear

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When one chats to Shakespearean actor Michael Pennington, it’s easy to fall in love with his dulcet tones, you’d think it was hand crafted to speak the Bard’s work.

And with a voice that can make the phone directory seem fascinating, it’s a good quality as he takes on the Shakespearean epic King Lear coming to the Royal & Derngate in Northampton.

He has played numerous roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company in a career spanning more than 50 years and appeared in the Star Wars film and The Iron Lady.

Michael plays the title role in the show running from Friday April 1 to Saturday April 23.

He said: “I was reading an article in a popular national newspaper and it was a poll of Shakespeare’s most popular plays and on top came King Lear which surprised me.

“It is quite a tragic play and quite blood thirsty even for Shakespeare as only two of the characters survive at the end.”

The final night of the play is performed on the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death and Michael believes despite its age, the material is still relevant to the times that we live in,

Michael said: “It is about a King who is dividing his kingdom and sharing it with his three daughters. But it could just as easily be a CEO dividing his company up or the head of a family dividing up the estate.

“Indeed there is a line in the show which makes you think of Calais and all the immigrants there.

“It is a timeless piece and there is always some relevance to the time period it is performed in.”

He also believes that the Bard’s work is starting to see a revival among a whole new generation.

Michael said: “We get to see a lot of young people coming to see Shakespeare and in part I think that has come about because of the improved way it is taught in schools.

“They are a lot more interactive now and have the chance to speak it out loud rather than reading it in a classroom which is what I was doing.”

It was probably a given that he was going to play King Lear at some point.

Michael said: “When you reach a certain age, you might be cast as Romeo, and then you get to the next age and you’ll be asked to play Hamlet and then after that, you get asked to be King Lear and I have reached that age.

“It is that he could go from writing about ordinary conversation to the most beautiful poetic dialogue within seconds. There is no other writer that could do that.”

Michael had previously played the role in a production in New York and he was instrumental in aiming to bring a version of King Lear to Northampton.

We spoke to Michael during rehearsals and while it has taken a long time to reach the stage, Michael is pleased with the end result.

He said: “We are in rehearsals and they are going really well. I am the only cast member to come over from the New York show but it has been helpful to act as a guide to give the other cast members.

“We have director Max Webster who is 40 years my junior but we are absolutely on the same wavelength.

“It is quite a short rehearsal period for the show, it is four and a half weeks and there is a lot of material but we have got it down to a lean three hours. It doesn’t matter what you are speaking, I don’t think you can make it last that long.”

He is also full of praise for the team at Northampton who are responsible for putting on the show.

Michael said: “I have performed a solo Shakespeare show about six or seven years ago and I did come and see the last production The Herbal Bed here which was stunning. It is a wonderful intimate theatre and can’t wait to make my debut at Northampton.”

He has had a broad and varied theatre career and you might think it was a deliberate choice . However it seems to have happened by accident.

Michael said: “There isn’t a conscious decision to do more theatre work. I was offered a big film and Hamlet at the same time in 1980 and from that I had to make a decision and chose to do Hamlet. There are times like that when your preference as an actor comes out.

“I wish I had more of a film career and it is something I regret but I do like performing live.”

One of the film roles he did take on was the relatively small part of Moff Jerjerrod in the sixth film in the science fiction saga Star Wars and he is amazed by the response it has had.

Michael said: “Star Wars, I had a week working on that film. I saw it very recently and I don’t think I was very good in it. I wish I could have done it better.

“It was good fun but it wasn’t like working on the film for three months and you build a relationship with the cast. I came in and did my scenes.

“But I am still astonished by the amount of mail I get from fans of the show, especially considering it was such a small part.”

Tickets are priced from £10 to £29. For further information about the show or to book tickets, call the box office on 01604 624811 or visit www.royalandderngate.co.uk.