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Michael Pennington finds new facets in Shakespeare's tragic king
Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at actors and how they create their roles
"I've always noted that most Lears are either good in the first part or the last part, but not always in both," says Michael Pennington. "It's difficult to catch the autocrat and the tyrant in the first half and then the pitiful old man in the second half."
And if any living actor's in a position to evaluate a Shakespearean performance, it's certainly Pennington. In his native England, he's played almost all the major roles, often with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He's also toured extensively with Sweet Will, his solo play about the Bard, and written several books on performing Shakespeare's work.
Now he's applying his decades of knowledge to his first performance as King Lear, in the production currently running at Theatre for a New Audience.
Asked which part of the play comes more naturally to him---the tyranny half or the senility half---Pennington laughs and says, "The senility half. I'm of an age where one fears forgetting people's names and does forget people's names. One fears for one's short-term memory."
All joking aside, his performance in King Lear is nuanced throughout. He's blustering and powerful in the early scenes, when Lear foolishly disowns his devoted daughter Cordelia and divides his kingdom between his perfidious daughters Regan and Goneril. Later, when a chain of tragic events leaves the king mentally broken, Pennington brings palpable emotion to his downfall.
His performance is partially animated by his new discoveries about the play, which continues to surprise him.
Take Act 2, Scene 4, when Lear tries to lodge with Regan after Goneril has turned him away. The king wants to bring a retinue of at least 100 knights to his daughter's home, but as the scene progresses, the sisters wheedle him out of bringing any followers at all.
"I hadn't realized what a complex piece of reasoning it is," Pennington says." You sort of know what's going to happen, because you've seen it with Goneril. You know what the issue is, and you know that Regan's going to reject him. In a way, the scene almost looks overwritten.
"But the interest is in the way Lear attempts to manipulate one against the other, little knowing that the two women are thick as thieves. They're bonded against him, and that's the point. It's not what the outcome of the scene's going to be, but the skill of the process by which that outcome is reached."
Despite finding that scene "the most difficult to rehearse in the first week or two," Pennington now says these power grabs make it one of the production's most rewarding moments to perform.
Another bit of clarity: Late in the play, Lear is imprisoned (along with Cordeila), leaving him apparently ruined. As Pennington notes, however, this is the moment he treats his one faithful daughter like a proper father, imagining the happiness they'll find in captivity. Lear may no longer have the authority of a king, but he gains something more valuable.
"It's the power of self-respect and dignity and standing up for himself, which he finally learns at the end of the play," Pennington says. "'We have no kingdoms left; we have no country left; but we have our self-respect and each other.' That's what he's saying. And that's an amazing story, isn't it?"
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Carol Rosegg