Features Book Reviews Published 5 April 2012

Sweet William

Twenty thousand hours with Shakespeare.

Neil Dowden

There are few people more qualified to write a book about Shakespeare from a practitioner’s point of view than Michael Pennington. One of our finest classical stage actors of the last forty years, he forged his reputation by playing many of the great Shakespearean roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the English Shakespeare Company (of which he was co-founder and co-artistic director with Michael Bogdanov). In September he will play Mark Antony in Antony and Cleopatra opposite Kim Cattrall in Janet Suzman’s production at the Chichester Festival Theatre. Pennington has also directed several Shakespeare productions, and has written three books on individual plays, so he writes with insider authority.

Inspired by his one-man show about Shakespeare also called Sweet William, which he has toured around the world, Pennington takes the opportunity in this book to explore much more deeply the connections between the playwright’s life and works. Having himself seen the light as an 11-year-old schoolboy enthralled by a staging of Macbeth at the Old Vic in the early 1950s, he is determined to relay the torch to others: “Now I’m an expert of sorts myself, having at a rough estimate spent twenty thousand hours of my life so far performing Shakespeare, leave alone the time taken rehearsing, talking, thinking and writing about him . . . I realise that all I’ve learned over the years doesn’t add up to a hill of beans unless I can . . . pass on . . . that same intoxication of sound and meaning, its sudden impact on ear, eye and stomach”.

He goes a long way to achieving that in this beautifully written book, which combines the intellectual rigorousness of academic detailed study of text (minus alienating jargon or excessive citations) with illuminating references to specific dramatic productions and performances (minus self-indulgent theatrical anecdotes). The result is an accessible but not dumbed-down account of Shakespeare’s world. Pennington provides considerable insights into this complex, much-contested writer, using a modest and witty approach which, while not claiming to have all the answers, nonetheless comes across with the passionate conviction of a lifetime of personal experience.

The book is basically arranged chronologically, alternating between biography and writings, though occasionally certain themes take over and interesting side-paths are followed. There is nothing new in the information given about Shakespeare’s personal relationships or professional career, but the way these are linked with what he wrote is always thoughtful and usually convincing. Pennington does not idolise his subject, commenting on flaws in the plays: the beginnings and endings vary widely in their success, and the humour can often be overdone. And he does not pretend to have special knowledge of what makes him tick as a man: “It is certainly quite hard to understand a writer so self-effacing, to whom the autobiographical assumptions we generally make about artists are so inapplicable”. But he adds to our appreciation.

Like the Bible, Shakespeare is all things to all men, with his ambiguous meaning and enigmatic personality giving rise to multiple interpretations. As Pennington points out, “We still don’t know a single one of his opinions, but we often quote from him without realising we’re doing it, to make our own more persuasive”. Above all, he highlights Shakespeare’s humanistic ability to inhabit an incomparably wide range of characters presenting a huge variety of outlooks on the world, thus enlarging our sympathies: “He brings us together, with each other and ourselves”. And this highly engaging book helps spread the word.


Neil Dowden

Neil's day job is working as a freelance editor for book publishers such as HarperCollins, Penguin, Faber and British Film Institute Publishing, but as a night person he prefers reviewing for Exeunt. He has also written features on the theatre and reviewed films, concerts, albums, opera, dance, exhibitions, books and restaurants for various newspapers and magazines, including The Stage and What's On in London, as well as contributing to a couple of books on 20th-century drama and writing a short tourist guide to London for Visit Britain. He insists he is not a playwright manqué but was born to be a critic and just likes sticking a knife into luvvies. In fact, as a boy he wanted to become a professional footballer, but claims there were no talent scouts where he then lived on the South Wales coast, and so has had to settle for playing Sunday league for a dodgy south London team. Apart from the arts and sport, his other main interest is travel, and he is never happier than when up a mountain, though Everest Base Camp is the highest he has been so far. He believes he has not yet reached his peak.