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“All that is certain is that nothing is certain”

Actor Theatre Book

Michael Pennington “Let me play the lion too : how to be an actor” , Faber and Faber , December-19-17
Actor Theatre Book by Michael Pennington “Let me play the lion too : how to be an actor” When Radio 4's “Front Row” wished to pay tribute to Michael Bogdanov their first call went to Michael Pennington. It was Pennington who provided the most telling phrase for his collaborator-friend “an extraordinary mixture of scholarship and mischief.” The English Shakespeare Company, which they co-founded in 1986, features in the actor's 410-page book. It was a challenger to the RSC and National Theatre's in its ability to mount large-scale classical drama. Its funding, says Pennington, was “a happy conjunction of judgement, hunch and the right political moment”.

It features in the section of his book “Summing Up an A-Z”, the entry titled “Going It Alone.” Classical theatre appears in his book- Pennington played “Hamlet” well over a hundred times- but it is part of the span of performance that ranges just about everywhere an actor may go. His opening section is all about film, prompted by a co-appearance, modest in length, with Robert de Niro. He explains how to do it and details how a film set works. Roles such as the Best Boy, who has seven primary duties, are explained.

Pennington has acute things to say about radio, not least its defying every prediction of demise. “Let me play the lion too : how to be an actor” has the wisdom of experience running through it but is lacking in dogma. At the opposite end of the spectrum, when acting in a Mamet play, he finds young actors reading the playwright's guide-cum-polemic “True and False”. To Pennington it is “a blistering piece of propaganda”. He hurls the copies from the rehearsal room's window, although decently recompensing the books' owners.

But this is an uncharacteristic piece of high opinion. In the main his book is a wealth of observation that provides advice. He has, he admits, been around a long time. The young actor was in Berlin in the summer when the Anti-fascist Protection Rampart was built. He recalls the murder of a seventeen year old in Southall in 1976. The Chair of the National Front's comment was “One down, one million to go”. In that other Britain the speaker is acquitted of the charge of inciting racial hatred. But his book is not a memoir. If its structure rambles then it is a ramble at the hands of a guide filled with ripe information to fascinate.

The book's tone can be seen in the chapter headings. Chapter 9 is titled “Sex and Drugs and Turning up” and is just that, although done with levity. Moments of theatre history run lightly in and out. He reports on Meyerhold worrying over a moment in playing Tusenbach in the first production of “the Three Sisters.” He and Stanislavski hit on the idea of opening a bottle of wine and Tusenbach having difficulty with the cork.

When he is in Ronald Harwood's “Taking Sides” his preparation by way of historical research is substantial. Then he encounters his director in the form of Harold Pinter. Pennington reprises the tale of a young Alan Ayckbourn enquiring of the author what Stanley in “the Birthday Party” might be thinking but not saying. “Mind your own f***ing business” is the Pinter response.

He has the actor's take on previews, a habit more or less invented by Peter Hall. The cast's stance is split: “ however many previews they're never quite enough- except that by now they want to get the thing on and running.” He is both acid and confessional on the subject of awards. “You might as well compare someone who specialises in meringue glacé with someone who is good at gutting a fish on the grounds that they're preparing something to eat...comparing a performance of a Shirley Valentine with a Medea is about as stupid an activity as you can get involved with.” He is appalled by the anonymity of web opinion.”Public reviewing” he says “is a responsible job that should be done with care and an open mind.”

He has his views on critics but his book is primarily about actors. He meets an actor who did not work for six years and estimates that his income when they briefly work together to be £100,000 a year. As for the worries over intake “the same proportion of talent and willingness is flowing into the profession as it ever did.” The new generations face what all generations have faced. “All that is certain in any career is that nothing is certain.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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