Sweet William

Written and performed by Michael Pennington
Tobacco Factory, Bristol, and touring
(2008)

Michael Pennington in Sweet William

What is known for certain of Shakespeare's life can be contained pretty well on the back of a beer mat, so any show about the Great Man is going to be brief unless it allows itself license to roam beyond the merely biographical.

At the beginning of the evening, Michael Pennington explains that this will not be a jog through the life of Stratford's finest. What follows, however, is at least in part just that, albeit one leavened with insights and readings from his writing.

Given the fact that Pennington is one of our most-respected actors and has spent 20,000 hours playing Shakespeare - his estimate - anything he has to say on the Swan of Avon is likely to command our interest - and so it proves.

Pennington describes his first encounter with the work of Shakespeare - at the age of 11, when he was taken by his parents to a see production of Macbeth at the Old Vic - as a 'hammer blow', which shaped the course of his adult life.

As an introduction to Shakespeare the evening could hardly be bettered, filled as it is with a deep love of his writing, about as far away from the dust-dry and joyless studies of academia as it is possible to get. Pennington savours the richness and infinite variety but crucially, he also demonstrates how it works.

He shows how Shakespeare focuses on details, often mundane, contrasting this with the 'mighty line' of Christopher Marlowe, and charts his development through early work such as the three parts on Henry VI and Comedy of Errors.

Pennington does not, as others have done, speculate widely about his life. There is nothing on the impact of the loss of his son Hamnet, nor on the importance of the father-daughter relationship which permeates the later writings especially.

But his observation that the author's 'lost years' were most likely spent in a travelling company of players, learning his trade, seems eminently sensible.

For Pennington, Will was a subversive figure, despite royal patronage and his determination to secure for himself the status of a gentleman. I'm not so sure. The writing of Katherine Duncan-Jones, among others, have persuaded me of the cataclysmic impact of his father's fall from grace - consider how many of his plays have protagonists who have to fight to recover (former) greatness - Pericles, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, The Tempest, to name but a handful.

What I think he is right about is Shakespeare's deep and abiding humanity which is the bedrock of his insight into and empathy with human frailty, something which is at the heart of such tragic figures as Macbeth, Lear, Othello, or, as he says: "If you scratch a great hero, you find a complete ass".

His delivery of passages from the sonnets and plays, which diverge at times from the beaten path, are impeccable. The two hours pass indeed, 'sweetly'.

Reviewer: Pete Wood