Features Q&A and Interviews Published 21 November 2011

Michael Pennington

Michael Pennington read English at Cambridge University. He has played many leading classical and contemporary roles and has a particularly long association with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He co-founded the English Shakespeare Company with Michael Bogdanov in 1986 and has toured his one-man shows about Shakespeare and Chekhov internationally. Pennington is appearing in Ibsen's Judgement Day, adapted from Ibsen's late play When We Dead Awaken by Mike Poulton, at The Print Room until December 17th 2011.
Neil Dowden

Michael Pennington has been one of the stars of the British stage for the last four decades. His name and face may not be quite so recognisable as some of his contemporaries because he has not made the same impact on screen, but his many critical successes in heavyweight roles in the theatre have established him as one of our leading exponents of the mainstream classical repertoire. Over the years, he has excelled in plays by the likes of Shakespeare, Molière, Congreve, Ibsen, Chekhov and Shaw, as well as creating new characters in works by David Edgar and Ronald Harwood.

His latest role is the autobiographical lead in Ibsen’s rarely performed and notoriously difficult final play When We Dead Awaken, in a new version by Mike Poulton re-titled Judgement Day, at the enterprising Print Room. When I meet up with him during a lunchtime rehearsal break I half-expect him to be in full-bearded, Old Testament prophet mode like Ibsen himself, but the 68-year-old Pennington is not only clean shaven and informally dressed but exudes a distinctly gentle presence as he modestly proffers his opinions in a beautifully modulated baritone voice.

Michael Pennington and Penny Downie in Judgement Day. Photo: Sheila Burnett

Set in the Norwegian mountains, Ibsen’s dreamlike, symbolist play is a fascinating exploration of an artist’s ambivalent relationship with the raw material of life, triggered specifically by the reunion between elderly sculptor Rodek (Pennington) and his former model Irena (played by Penny Downie), the muse who inspired his greatest work. He has captured her soul in stone but by doing so seems to have turned her flesh and blood existence into a sort of deathly petrification. James Dacre’s production is the first in London since the Almeida’s in 1990.

Poulton’s version alludes to Ibsen’s own original title ‘The Resurrection Day’, which is taken from the name of the sculpture discussed in the play. Pennington is full of praise for Poulton, a successful past adaptor of Ibsen, with whom he worked earlier this year on Eduardo De Filippo’s The Syndicate at Chichester. ‘Everybody had told me this Ibsen was unplayable and like his early works he really wrote it to be read not staged, but Mike has done a brilliant job of boiling it down to its essentials. Even though Ibsen’s late expressionist plays are more stripped down, older translations tended to be verbose and full of padding. Mike’s ear is so sharp though that he has given it an almost Beckett-like precision without doing any damage to the play’s structure.’

Pennington is keen to stress the universal humanity in the play: ‘Although Rodek is evidently a self-portrait, I only used Ibsen’s biography up to a point, and certainly don’t want to look like him, because this is about situations we can all recognise. Although his style has evolved, Ibsen covers similar archetypal preoccupations to his earlier works. This is not just a rarefied discussion about art but about the everyday dynamic in male/female relations.’ He hopes the play will provoke some impassioned post-show discussions.


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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.