Actor Michael Pennington discusses the direct effect on Shakespeare’s writing on the theatres he wrote for, so different from ours.
A lecture by Michael Pennington, Actor and Founder of the English Shakespeare Company 6 November 2018
Leading actor and Shakespeare scholar Michael Pennington discusses the direct effect on the dramatist’s writing of the theatres he wrote for, so different from ours. From cinematic intimacy to heroic spaciousness, his plays reflect his actors’ technique and the social range of his audience, allowing him the means to look further and deeper into the human condition, its public and inner life, than any dramatist has achieved before or since.
good afternoon ladies and gentlemen it is March the 3rd 1592 and a pleasant enough afternoon to go to the Playhouse at the new Rose Theatre in Southwark in the Liberty clink the price is to stand not high there are balconies as well where you can sit but they cost 3 pence 3 times as expensive as standing in the pit which is paid with cinders and ash and impacted hazelnut shells left by previous audiences there's a new play on today presented by the Lord strangers man written not by one of our London playwrights but by young out-of-towner who's causing something of a stir it's called Harry the v-j the people who've seen it are more correctly calling it Henry the sixth it deals with those events that are still in all our family histories that terrible civil war in which the Lancastrians wore their red roses and the Yorkists their white it's painful to recall rather as if people in 2018 say might watch a play about the end of the first world war violence sweeps across the stage in a vicious tide the two armies roar and curse at each other threatened clash and murder but suddenly the strangest thing happens the unassuming figure of the King of England himself comes on and sits down on a molehill he's a quiet and gentle man taking no part in the fighting at all he quietly tells us he longs to be a homely Swain a shepherd tending his flock oh what a life will this have sweet how lovely suddenly another man arrives from the battle dragging the corpse of a younger man he's very pleased with himself having killed this soldier of the enemy's side till he looks more closely at the face and sees that it is that of his own son this was truly a war that split families it's a little bit as if a brexit er had killed a member of his family who voted remain then a young man comes on with a dead body of an older man and the equivalent happens he is a son who has accidentally killed his own father the air is filled with these two men's lamentations and the Kings sorrow for them all three are on the ground a triptych of grief they never address each other but their voices make the sad music that momentary silences the sounds of war Harry the v-j heroic and rhetorical till now has suddenly become heartbreaking and now we see the Duke of York also on a molehill he stands holding a blood-stained handkerchief with a paper crown on his head this humiliation has been inflicted on him by the Lancastrian Queen a French woman who is a little like boa decir as a preparation for killing him as she has killed his youngest son who was little more than a boy York too is inconsolable see ruthless Queen a hapless father's tears this cloth though dipped in blood of my sweet boy and I with tears to wash the blood away and then she kills him too now another sound gently insinuates itself one of York's three surviving sons is left alone with us making our acquaintance with a certain civility I have no brother I'm like no brother this word love which gravy is called divine be resident in men like one another and not in me I am myself alone why love forswore me in my mother's womb and for I should not deal in her soft laws she did conspire with nature with some bribe to shrink mine arm up like a withered shrub to make an envious mountain in my back to shape my legs of an unequal size to disproportion me in every part like to a chaos or an unlit bear whelp that carries no impression like the Damned I've often heard my mother say I came into the world with my legs forward the midwife wondered and the women cried why jeez you bless us he's born with teeth he's whispering to his snakes that he will stop at nothing in his Irving the crown of England for himself as Richard the third he seems to be speaking on behalf of every transgressor who has their secret longings whether they be characters in the play or indeed we in the audience the Rose Theatre where Harry the Vijay premiered so spectacularly was finally excavated in 1989 thanks to the filibustering of a small army of theatre practitioners community groups and right-minded MPs it's rather scanty remains were saved from developers about to flatten the site to build an office block in fact as such disputes go this was a remarkably genial affair and it created great photo opportunities famous actors lay down in the path of slowly approaching tractors to the great amusement of their drivers Leslee Grantham of EastEnders pleaded on behalf of Shakespearean stage history and Dame Peggy Ashcroft presided over the theaters skeletal remains in a great Shakespearean throne like King Canute except that she did manage to slaughter waves Shakespearean posses quickened the developers were thoroughly reasonable and the modest national interest in Elizabethan theatre practice surged a little it turned out that in its time it had opened in 1587 the Rose standing just outside the city limits to avoid the city fathers on the alert for disguised brothels was only the fourth significant theatre to be built in London it was preceded by a playhouse in Newington butts and the curtain and the very first of all simply called the theatre as so far there was no other now that we have unearthed a few facts the imagery of the Rose its timber and thatch its upstage balcony for onlookers within the play the slightly strange stage which had a lateral bulge between its upstage and downstage areas which then tapered to a point as directly as an accusing arrow at the audience ahead of it it all made you realise how electric the limping approach of the future Richard the third must have been the odds and ends left in the courtyard jewelry rings and so on and now in fact here in the Museum of London most fascinating of all the theatre held 2,000 people even though the courtyard in which the stage set not just the stage but the surrounding courtyard was only 12 metres across no health and safety regulations there in it it could sustain the epic sweep of the Wars of the Roses and the intimacy of the Henri the six on his mole hill and the Duke of York sag and for all that there is so little to see now the Rose with its singular combination of congestion and distance those who'd paid the most were banished to the furthest seats and the cheapest standing in the front in an exact opposite of modern practice provides a muscular enticing hint of London in the 1590s it was in fact a model for all that followed not that Shakespeare was going to hang around here for very long this was much more the patch of Christopher Marlowe and perhaps Thomas Kyd and Ben Jonson as well as a 28 year old he had only recently shaken himself free of the limitations of stratford-on-avon his father's bankruptcy his perhaps shotgun marriage to Anne Hathaway their three children and then perhaps spent his so-called last years learning his trade by acting in a touring company such as the itinerant Queens men in terrible old warhorses with suspiciously familiar titles such as the taming of a shrew the famous victories of Henry v the Troublesome reign of King John and this was a life described by Ben Jonson as going with shoes full of gravel behind a blind Jaden hamper to stalk upon boards and barrel heads to an old crap trumpet hasn't changed much actually if so Shakespeare may have been that unpopular company member who was always complaining about the script and thus becoming an instinctive reviser of terrible Oh plays for his own purposes in London he saw his chance he immediately gravitated to the theater district shortage when he arrived much as Italians would one day head for New York's Little Italy and the presence of Christopher Marlowe and the young Richard Burbage and so many working play houses must have sent his mind racing the city was in the grip of theater building and since he had literally never seen a purpose-built theater as such as opposed to any and so on he must have been fascinated the Rose the theater and the rest all had very much the same design they would have they would be polygamous shape with a courtyard within them open to the sky a stage sticking into the courtyard like a tongue it was thus an amphitheater with audience on three sides and a stack of balconies looking down at the stage which was truly suspended you might say between heaven and hell the roof which was really there to keep the rain off being known by everyone as the heavens and the area beneath the stage reached through a trapdoor as the hell so all plays with a tragical comical tragical comical historical-pastoral implicitly reflected man's position in the universe when Shakespeare came to write Henry the fifth years later he has his chorus insists that since a single figure could attest in little place a million we must on our Imaginary Forces work in the absence of scenery and a big company of actors and this simplicity was to be Shakespeare's calling card despite the fact that there are always gallons of pig's blood standing by to make the battle scenes more graphic and the actors all wore clothes cast off by sympathetic noblemen so as he became a playwright famous for his word pictures he also with time had to spend many many long hours with his colleagues early in the morning in practical negotiations with Edmund Tilney master of the Revels as to what bits of furniture and flats of forest glades and so on could be approved for today's show as well as having each new text analyzed by him for impropriety before rushing off to play what we would nowadays call a matinee but it may well have dawned on him by now that there was a more prestigious venue for him than the Rose and that surely was the older theatre as a gift imparting to the Rose he seems to premiered after the three parts of Henry the sixth that blood bolt of black of the canon titus andronicus significantly significantly for all their violence all four rose plays feature some of the most electric writing he ever did and some ravishing poetry there is an entertaining print in existence of an actor playing titus in an Elizabethan doublet and hose with a Roman toga over it which should but doesn't settle all our current and rather wearisome arguments in advance as to whether the plays should be done in the costumes of the original period or updated to the present apart from its violence and unexpected lyricism Titus also shows that Shakespeare liked to silly joke as well as he did the deeper delights of comedy and he isn't afraid to break up his meter for it at one point Titus's brother squashes a fly dead on the table where they're sitting reproached by titus for such an act of barbarism he protests there was only a fly Titus's reply is but what if that fly had a father and a mother it must be the most unmet recline shakespeare ever wrote and in this play and from this character very funny broadening his range of jokes he then writes the comedy of errors and gives it a baptism at Gray's Inn perhaps the main joke in the play is Dromio of Syracuse describing a very fat woman who's pursuing him as being like Ireland because of the bogs Scotland because of her parsimony and Spain because of the garlic on her breath but claims he can't describe her Netherlands as Belgium out of good taste however Shakespeare also puts into the mouth of Adriana the respectable wife of one of the antipholuses a section of agonized sexual jealousy as x-rated I would say as anything in The Winter's Tale or a fellow later on so this is quite a new kind of writing featuring the attraction of opposite emotions within the same play and indeed in the same scene and also of styles between one play and its immediate successor Romeo's riff was probably well judged for the occasion as he was playing for a mainly male audience of lawyers stronger perhaps on wrangling quibbles than on good taste but he also knows that a dose of harsh reality such as the woman's genuine suffering can wonderfully season a comedy opportunistically Shakespeare is also prompting a relationship with the Inns of Court which will triumphantly culminates ten years later in Twelfth Night already denounced by a jealous colleague as an upstart crow something by now is brewing in our new man in town by the time the theatre beckons to him and he becomes a part of the Lord Chamberlain's Men his mind may already been already have been on ideas bigger than simply spotting gaps in the market and shopping around the available venues with whatever he can come up with as a writer perhaps it is an idea that modern theatre people embrace very easily it's the thought of an independent permanent company working around the year in their own venue together with occasional regional tours in Shakespeare's case this would also mean invitations to grand houses Shakespeare would act in all would act in all probability but also become its house but not only dramatist the regularity with which he would produce two plays of such multiplicity a year for the rest of his life suggests a company not unlike art a r32 complicity or cheek-by-jowl permanently occupying let's say a theatre such as London's young Vic with a group of actors always loyal but coming and going from time to and dependent entirely on box office receipts at the Rose for instance a performance of Henry the sixth part three grossed the grand total of three pounds eight shillings and sixpence but they were jubilant about it how they would have welcomed an Arts Council grant but without or without today's officious assessments perhaps a better model is the actors company of the 1970s or dare I say my English Shakespeare Company in the 80s and the 90s the theater meanwhile was being hired by man called James Burbidge the father of Richard Burbage who had rapidly become Shakespeare's star actor and who in fact had already played Richard the third as a follow-up to Richard of Gloucester he was there for the next six years in the 1590s with a company which also included augustine phillips richard ii and will kemp all the clans and of course the child actors who played the women wide-ranging at Shakespeare's plays were there are links of one kind or another between them both Love's Labour's Lost and A Midsummer Night's Dream and with the performance put on for the court by enthusiastic amateurs who win out against unruly and contemptuous audience of young aristocrats and they do it by embracing Shakespeare's impassioned belief that theatre can change people's hearts and minds and dissolve the barriers between the foreigners and the Clarkes the Lords and the Carpenters the apprentices illiterate sand poets so that they all become held for the moment on the same intake of breath in Burberry's theatre Shakespeare now rolls out his great carpet of some dozen of our favourite plays over half a dozen years mhm again there might seem little connection between them but in fact they form a curious daisy chain of theme and style quite apart from their plays within a play Love's Labour's Lost in the Midsummer Night's Dream are akin because they are the only two works in the entire canon for which Shakespeare made up the original story himself rather than adapting someone else's old one both of these plays have an unexpected moral underpinning as well as the glitter of their language and the knockabout of their comedy the former love's labour's has a wonderful shock ending in which the boys fail to win their women and are instead dispatched by them to do various semi Herculean Labor's for a year before asking again this broadcast Shakespeare's lifelong conviction that his men though intellectually vibrant often have too strong a streak of complacency to justify getting what they want and the play ends on a comic but fully sincere question mark a Midsummer Night's Dream which I once described as being like a jig played by Beethoven is actually much more than a jig when titania and Oberon argue about the disputed custody of their little foundling boy they bicker like humans although they rule the fairy world and thus little doubt who has the moral authority titania paints a vivid picture of the global warming that their quarrel is causing the cattle dying in the fields the harvests failing it could not be more serious or speak more directly to us in an equally contemporary way the shallower Oberon in denial about all of it interprets the quarrel only in terms of his sexual ownership of her Love's Labour's also partners Romeo and Juliet and Richard the second in the sumptuousness of their lyricism galvanic pace and high intelligence though that might be disputed by Queen Elizabeth the first who felt that Shakespeare was making a point against her in his depiction of a monarch Richard the second being successfully deposed the play was revised by chance at the moment of the Earl of Essex's rebellion and until good sense prevailed or gusted Philips who played Richard and his author could have ended up in jail for incitement I must say that as a theatre goer Elizabeth had less enthusiasm or intelligence than her successor James the Two Gentlemen of Verona contains songs romanticism and a wonderful comedy dog called Krabbe but also a near enough rape of the heroine by the hero the taming of the shrew expands the misogyny of that by exhibiting a vicious battle between man and woman though it does also suggest the possibility that bully and victim have a perverse mutual attraction much ado about nothing takes the same theme to a far more enjoyable level with much more sustained wind The Merchant of Venice is a graphic picture of racial intolerance there was at the time seen as the first even half sympathetic picture of a Jew from any English writer Richard the third expands the riches of Gloucester of Henry the sixth into the full-blown but irresistible monster usurper and delving further back into history the house dramatist also offers us King John which has a glorious death scene for the King narrating soliloquized in the bastard Faulconbridge and also the devastating scene of a mother's grief over her dead son even though the audience knows that he is not in fact dead yet there's a superb death scene for King Henry the fourth as well towards the end of Henry the fourth part – but that and part one have such a host of other glories including the great Sir John Falstaff that it is always primarily held the stage as the definitive state of the nation play all these thirteen premieres in six years show that Shakespeare was in a manner of speaking always wearing the same hat but at a different angles a sculpture working away at the same stone turning to similar models of mirth or sorrow and putting them two entirely different uses Constance is misery the agony of King Henry the insinuations of Richard will whisper and slammed appealing and defying as they swung like the action of a tiger up the three levels of the theaters auditorium competing with the peddlers and prostitutes and all the rest of it it was us the perfect Shakespearean space which immediately begs the question of how the actors dealt with such a space we may have the idea that Elizabethan and Jacobean actors were great hams and Barnstormer pria stanislavski's they were but we probably confused them with the Victorians with an audience on top of them both at the Rose and in the theatre and later at the globe they handled Shakespeare's increasingly confident shifts from the epic to such small human detail as York steers mixing with his bloody handkerchief the one thinning and diluting the other like soil laundry under a tap they understood that when someone is at an extreme they may say something banal or off the point rather than their last word on the subject they may meet death with a joke or an unfinished phrase issue a serious threat offhandedly or show great courage in spite of being a coward all whisper accomp damnation rather than yelling it in other words those actors to our surprise must from the start of knowns how to act in what we would recognize as a cinematic or televisual style as well as tearing a passion to tatters and it does remind me that Shakespeare himself was an early form of cinematographer with a superb zoom lens he keeps moving in on someone's face and backing away to see the whole grouping from the specific to the general all the time it's one of his great talents it's also likely that these actors has never been asked to do such a thing before because Marlowe and kid don't much call for it it is by the way a gift that comes more easily perhaps to modern actors who are trained to project but also have often done a good deal of subtle film work before taking on these great parts in the theatre now 12th of June $15.99 probably it is the perfect showbusiness blend of modesty and boastfulness but pardon gentles all the flat unraised spirits that have dared on this unworthy scaffold to bring forth so great an object may we cram within this wooden oh the very casket in a fright the air at Agincourt oh pardon since a crooked figure may attest in little place a million word has got round London that this new globe theater in southern has been built by the actors who are at the theater they were the Lord Chamberlain's Men and apparently they stripped all its timbers during the winter and brought them over the river to Southwark and constructed the globe out of them they say to that mr. Shakespeare has bought a little house next door so he doesn't have to travel too far to work but this Playhouse is bigger so they had to use some new timbers as well and it's all got rather a multi-coloured effect this virtuoso prank which falls by the way the centre of James shapira's wonderful book $15.99 secured the high summer of Shakespeare's career just as the indoor black friars could be seen as it's autumn and the theatre as its spring as we watch Roslin's step out onto the empty stage in the middle of the afternoon and announced a nearly 3,000 people perhaps with a little incredulity so this is the Forest of Arden or when viola asks her companions for her whereabouts and is told this is a linear lady or as the prologue in Taurus and Cressida explains that in Troy there lies the scene we see that this completely empty stage is what the playwright would now imagine every time he sat down to write and now a single figure turns and looks as we know who he is we watched him for an hour or so as he mourned his father met a ghost swore revenge on his uncle's pretended to be mad as a means to do it or perhaps to avoid doing it now he looks out at the thousands of us as if we were one person and speaks likewise perhaps he takes a couple of steps towards us then he says something both untrue and obvious now I am alone it's a magnificent deublin torn Hamlet is alone in his story and alone in our company as well simultaneously in Elsinore and southern it's hard to speak to thousands of people at once to speak believably quietly sometimes and sometimes forcefully as anyone who has acted in a Greek amphitheatre will tell you no one is quite done into this extent before perhaps Hamlet now takes another step onto the confidently thrusting four stage he's in fact at the globe stepping into sunlight because due to a cunning piece of theater design and performance scheduling the Sun is directly ahead of him as he comes out from under the ceiling of the main stage and he is suddenly as brightly illuminated as by a modern followspot we stare back at him is he about to come down among us and pick on us one by one for an interrogation he starts firing questions is it not monstrous that an attic and summon up tears at will well he himself cannot drop a tear or take a revenge instead on behalf of his dead father is he a coward who cause me villain breaks my pate across plucks off my beard and blows it in the face tweaks me by the nose gives me the lie in the throat as deep as to the lungs who does me this ha this great soliloquy which starts oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I is the most extroverted the most self punishing and the most intimate of Hamlet's utterances it lurches this way and that sometimes our metrically sometimes like stand-up comedy would without the jokes if an Elizabethan audiences were as for syphilis as we suppose how could he not have got an answer that some of these hammer-blow questions by now Shakespeare has changed the theatre irrevocably and we are his heirs he can now please The Groundlings and the intellectuals at the same moment with his infinitely flexible blank verse he moves from jubilation to deep suffering in a moment from the intimate detail the broader sweep likewise he allows Fluellen to be as fluent as the king in henry v hamlet to be put to shame by a gravedigger the guile a shepherd Corrin makes mincemeat of the court applications of touchstone and as you like it in measure for measure the condemned prisoner Bernardin with a marvelous mad dignity completely confounds the disguised duke of vienna by flatly refusing to be executed at a time that suits the Dukes convenience now this fantastical Duke of dark corners in measure for measure has been compared to the incoming monarch James the first certainly a new contract is needed from 16 3 onwards for Shakespeare with a new regime and it is complex James immediately renamed the company the King's Men the actors to make grooms of the chamber and they march in ceremonial processions in red velvet suits they will now play at court every three weeks rather than every three months can you imagine any subsequent British monarchs seeing the theatre is quite such a priority old plays will be revived and new masterpieces written but was there a queasy feeling to this what was to be the payback Shakespeare's own response to James was by terms accommodating and critical James is to him generous but watchful the Scottish King who was interested in witchcraft gets a Scottish play Macbeth which confirms the Kings hope that the historical involvement of his great ancestor Banquo in Macbeth murder of King Duncan has been transferred to the fictional Lady Macbeth should say that Banquo was supposed to be the founder the Stuart dynasty and therefore James was his descendant he even hears through the Porter approval for the public disembowelling of the harmless Jesuit priest Father Edward garnet that he had authorized unfortunately when Macbeth came to play for the first time at the court the event was somehow spoiled by the behavior of the visiting King Christian of Denmark who had to be carried away during the performance insensate with drink presumably through the ranks of women guests engaged in competitive vomiting from the same cause as if in a form of retaliation the king's men paid a return visit to premier King Lear at Hampton Court in the squalid Bacchanalia of a royal Christmas a couple of years later and it turned out to be Shakespeare's most ferocious assault yet on privileged and bad kingship launched at an audience sitting in ten levels of prestige between the entertainment and the towering pedestal where King James sat at the other end of the hall Shakespeare went even further in time and of Athens a great potential work which was never performed while Shakespeare was alive I should say because of its parody of the Grace and favor politican of the Jacobean Court altogether in fact this phase of Shakespeare's life was less to do with buildings James obviously preferred to bring the theater to him but rather with court visits and grand tours still without quitting the globe the King's Men finally took over the disused dominican monastery and black friars said they'd wanted so long in 1607 now at last they were indoors and could work in the evenings by candlelight here jupiter could fly in from the ceiling on an eagle's back throwing a thunderbolt in Cymbeline there were musical interludes and pauses between scenes to trim the candles and this from an author who well understood the flow of one Scene into another over dress customers strolled across the stage during the show actually it's not so strange I've seen the same thing of kitschy stuff everyone made money lots of money but this black friar sounds to me like a quiet reward for a life of hard work than any real news stimulus and so Shakespeare very soon retired to Stratford to deal with his family and nurse his scriveners palsy writers cramp to you and me occasionally breaking silence to contribute a special Shakespearean effect but John Fletcher the Kings men's new house dramatist such as a Queen's impassioned courtroom defense against a tyrannical royal husband he was very good at those or some see me gossip among the citizens outside the Abbey in Henry the eighth just as he once did with a beautiful passage in Pericles Prince of Tyre when taya is cast into the sea or a group of fishermen talk about the big fish eating the small ones in the sea just as humans do by land you can always tell who it is this writing and eventually in his self-effacing way Shakespeare slips away from us above his tomb in Stratford is a singularly unhelpful bust of him which only suggests you wouldn't have wanted to cross him if you were a tenant farmer on his land I've heard Shakespeare described as not a writer but a landscape part of most people's lives not so for most of the world his words must seem as irrelevant as those of some visiting statesmen we say he's universal but really that's the figure of speech to a large part of the world he is as unlikely as a square meal but in any community with a leisure or determination to clear a space in its midst for storytelling Shakespeare an ordinary man are not really an intellectual reminds us of what matters and what doesn't we still don't know a single one of his opinions but we often quote from him without realizing we're doing it and he makes us all talented there are moments where we can feel ourselves on the brink just on the brink of seeing what he saw as he pounded the fields to target weaved his way along bank side or looked up from his desk in Stratford to see the mulberry tree he planted in garden at new place perhaps e is by now thinking of the life lived every play a winner from number one to number 37 and a transformation of all the theaters they played in in that short period and the actors whose work they made better and a knowledge that he had indeed attested in little place of many stages a million human states of mind together with Chekhov Beckett and the Greek tragedians chase P gives no clue of what angered him personally or ever twists his logic to express his own view and he used these similar but distinct buildings with their peculiar mixture of scale and confidentiality to provoke his audience as never before as for all of us here I think Shakespeare is very good for the health and not just the individual health the readings yourself or think about him alone is certainly one of life's enrichments but ideally it's only a preparation for an increasingly unlikely Civic act which in fact you've all performed this evening you have to go out if you can arrive somewhere at a certain time negotiate a little with your fellow citizens and become part of the process whereby a hundred five hundred a thousand people have completely different sensibilities experiences of life senses of humor become that singular organism and audience all held on the same breath as Hamlet approaches the praying Claudius with his sword upraised or as Malvolio presents himself to Olivia cross-gartered and in yellow stockings a color ship whores on a good night we leave the high music and the astonishing simplicity's the insinuation protest and reconciliation in an exhilarated state fear lie hugely entertained ready for more healthy arguments more tolerance and less easily deceived and maybe ready to go home and pull out a copy of your favorite play and try out a couple of speeches as for me you probably know what I feel by now this is a man who's got in everywhere in my life he's been as as universal in me as white noise which is perhaps what Victor Hugo meant when he said of Shakespeare he strides over proprieties he overthrows Aristotle he does not keep Lent he overflows like vegetation like germination like light like flame was the great movie producer Sam Goldwyn put it no less eloquently fantastic and it was all written with a feather thank you you