March 01, 1991

Travelling Shakespeare

Filed under: Archive,Interviews


The English Shakespeare Company spend most of their time travelling. Murray Bramwell talks with Michael Pennington, June Watson and Andrew Jarvis about touring, audiences and their current repertory season of Coriolanus and The Winter’s Tale.

It is something of paradox that because of their colourful, minimalist stagings, tuxedo toffs, punks and mod cons, the English Shakespeare Company are regarded as an experimental group. In fact, on the road since 1986 with The Henrys, and then the epic Wars of the Roses, the ESC epitomise the traditional touring ensemble.

Few companies could have maintained such high standards with such rigorous schedules though. For two years The Wars of the Roses, a seven play cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays performed in five day stints, played in theatres all over the world. Presently, two companies are performing – a home team working in the UK with The Merchant of Venice and Jonson’s Volpone and the international company led by Michael Pennington.

As co-founder, with director Michael Bogdanov, the articulate, courtly Pennington has led from the front in what could be mistaken for the style of the legendary actor-managers of last century. In fact the key to the success of the ESC has been the extent to which Bogdanov and Pennington have established and maintained a capable, experienced ensemble.

I asked Michael Pennington whether he gets irritated by the focus on the company’s use of modern settings and props. “Not irritated,” his judicious reply,” I’m glad people are interested. But really it does become the least interesting question to answer because in practice it is neither here not there. People get in such a stew about these things -in theory- should you do it in modern dress, should you do it this way ? and so on. In practice we find that even people who come to the theatre ready to resist the idea, shrug it off, get used to it very quickly and it doesn’t raise nearly as many hackles as you’d think.”

“Besides which, it is not really a conscious style. It is only a manifestation of a certain approach to the text, an instinct about the text -so we allow ourselves a certain freedom- but we may not always work that way. It’s not the banner under which we are flying. The banner is the text.”

The company opened in Adelaide this week after a season at the Perth Festival and, before that, a month in India.
“The juxtapositions are quite startling, notes Pennington of the Indian tour. “We’ve been in dressing rooms with rats and on stages with bats and lizards,” adds founding actor June Watson with a laugh. “The place we played in Bombay was absolutely decrepit,” recalls Pennington, “but the audiences were terrific. What we would have most liked to do was to leave them some 6K lamps or a sound desk or something. There’s no technology. But there is a great audience for Shakespeare in India, and a touring tradition.”

Michael Pennington describes the current season, Coriolanus and The Winter’s Tale, as “a bit wayward. But they are splendid plays and we wanted to do them.”

“Coriolanus was a timely choice. At the time we were deciding to do it there were rumblings all over Western Europe and Germany. That was in 1989 and Michael Bogdanov, based in Hamburg, sensed it more strongly than I did. We thought a play that deals with people taking to the streets demanding bread, and beyond bread, revolt, might just turn out to be a topical play by the time we got to rehearsing and performing it!”

Coriolanus, the tragedy of a Roman soldier who, in his contempt for the citizenry, turns against them, also focuses closely on his relationship with his mother, Volumnia, played in the ESC production by June Watson.

“The role demands a lot of stamina. You ask is she bloodthirsty ? It’s not blood she’s after. She firmly believes she is doing what’s right. She wants to make him the most powerful and wonderful man in the world. A lot of us mothers want that for our sons- some of us just don’t go to those lengths ! I think she comes to realise that Virgilia, the wife of Coriolanus, might have a point- there are other ways than the warlike.”

“Perhaps the system of military values is a bit alien,” Pennington comments, “It’s not really that different from being being the mother of a sports champion, or a great intellectual, or a brain surgeon- the motivations and psychology are much the same.The play depends on keeping both his relationship with his family and that with the State in some kind of kilter. I’ve seen Coriolanus done as a vehicle for the main character but it also belongs crucially in the political world.”
Andrew Jarvis, memorable to those who saw his Richard III in The Wars of the Roses, makes the point that the ESC production gives the citizenry more seriousness and integrity than is usually the case.

Pennington elaborates,
“Political theatre is alien to the English tradition in a way because the whole approach to Shakespeare is based on the kind of theatrical tradition which has to do with actor-managers and the splendidness of the central part and led to a critical tradition which is based on individualism. This tends to lead those presenting Coriolanus to regard those who oppose the hero as paltry or foolish. That wouldn’t happen in Germany or other countries I don’t think.”

Andrew Jarvis plays the part of Tullus Aufidius, Coriolanus’ former enemy with whom he joins forces to revenge himself against Rome. “Aufidius is a great soldier but he is also more of a politician than Coriolanus. Besides, the situation is not big enough for both of them. It’s like having two world champions. They both want to be world champion. But they can’t be.”

The play has its effect on audiences. As Michael Pennington says, “Audiences always think it’s about them. The Finns thought it was about them. So did the Indians – for instance the idea of the mother’s boy is a theme they were quick to identify, as they did in Tokyo. Each thinks it was written for and about their particular section of society.”

“I was asked in Bombay why we had chosen to dress Aufidius’ army as Moslem fundamentalists. Considering what a sensitive issue it was in India -was that very tactful ? Vainly I tried to explain that it was designed eight months ago in London and that what we were trying to suggest were two armies who were not European or American but somehow to do with the Eastern Mediterranean. We weren’t making specific parallels at all. But they wouldn’t accept that.”

Michael Pennington is equally careful that The Winter’s Tale not be too precisely construed. Suggestions that it is portrait of Thatcherite Britain he ruefully dismisses as “incautious advance publicity.”

“What happens in the court of Leontes is the result of private obsession and spreads over the kingdom as a sort of strange neurosis. It has an effect on the way the kingdom is run but unlike Coriolanus there isn’t much in the play about the relationships with neighbouring states or its military style or anything like that.

The Winter’s Tale doesn’t move into the public sphere in nearly the same way. Although it’s not just a study of a man’s frame of mind (as in the critical tradition) but rather its effect on the group of people around him.

“Audiences respond variously because the play is very various. The Bohemian scenes, on a good night, are popular because they are funny and joyous but the juxtapositions in the play are very extreme. There are quick shifts from comedy to the serious, to everything in between, so that the audience is becoming quicksilver -adapting in the same way that the play is changing style and adapting.

“There is nearly an hour and a quarter in Bohemia and then you are asked to go back to Sicilia and take an interest in Leontes’ penance and the extraordinary notion of the statue that comes back to life. On the face of it, it is quite a difficult transition to make. Generally speaking, audiences have taken it well. The Winter’s Tale is a beautiful unclassifiable play . I don’t know where it belongs really.”

Ahead for the English Shakespeare Company is a season in London and preparations for a new programme -as yet unnamed- of “three Shakespeares and a Moliere”. The group are keen to expand their education programme of workshops – while in Adelaide they will be active in schools and with university classes. Their masterwork The Wars of the Roses, filmed in the last month of its performances, is now available on video and has already been screened on Canadian television.

But the heart of the company is its touring. AS Michael Pennington muses- “There is a division between those who can bear to tour and those who can’t. When we started I thought we’d never get a company together because this schedule is so punishing, particularly for actors in their middle years, in the middle ranges of casting- my lords of Exeter, Gloucester and Bedford- on whom a Shakespearian production depends. Those actors, with families and mortgages to deal with, have often found other ways of making a good living.

“I’m impressed with the quality and depth we’ve found in that area which suggests that deep in actors is an old folk memory for touring theatre and Shakespeare in particular. It still excites people. They want to get out a bit and busk it on the road.

The Advertiser, March, 1991.

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