Long, long ago, when I was studying at Oxford University, I spent a week between terms at Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare. I saw nine plays that week. I was studying English Renaissance Literature at Oxford, and at that point Shakespeare and John Donne were my life. During my time in England I was able to see 34 of the 37 Shakespeare plays, some multiple times.
For a range of reasons Hamlet is my favorite work of English literature. It was my first great and overwhelming literary experience when I went off to college long ago. I've read it fifty times at least, taught it, seen it every time I've had the chance, memorized swaths of it, and more. My life's dream has been to perform as Hamlet in a production of the play, though at this point I'm pretty long in the Elizabethan tooth, and the rapier and sword fights may be too much for my rheumatic joints. Can Laertes and Hamlet settle their dispute in a bowling match?
That week in Stratford I saw Hamlet four times. The lead was a young British actor named Michael Pennington. He was perfect. He somehow embodied the whole meaning of Shakespeare for me—the wit, the eloquence, the savage wordplay, the existential brooding, the uncanny sense of "thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls." If Hamlet is the greatest of plays—English literature in its purest expression—in my opinion Michael Pennington was the greatest Hamlet, better than Lawrence Olivier, Derek Jacobi (whom I saw perform Hamlet at the Old Vic in London, with my visiting parents), or Kenneth Branagh.
When I was not sitting in the RSC theater that week, I studied the Reformation in a back room at the Stratford Public Library. One afternoon about two I was working all alone in this small chamber, books on all four walls, some behind cages, when in walked a disheveled, muffled, bundled up fellow with the kind of head cold (bordering on bronchitis) you can only get in England. He was hacking and coughing and blowing his red nose, snuffling, pulling besotted cloth handkerchiefs out of various pockets and bending over to sneeze.
But soft you now! I suddenly realized it was Michael Pennington in the flesh, sans costume and sans makeup. We were entirely alone. I virtually worshipped him and all that he stood for. But I was so shy that I did not go up to him and tell him how much his work meant to me. I sat there flushed and diffident, while he drifted slowly along the shelves not paying any particular attention to anything he saw. He was just killing time and trying to get it together for the performance he must give in four or five hours on the most important stage in Great Britain. I feared that I might break his concentration or annoy a great actor while he meditated his role.
For the thirty-five years that have followed that moment, whenever I have thought about it, I have kicked myself for not saying, quietly, "Mr. Pennington, I don't mean to disturb you, but I want to say your Hamlet epitomizes for me all that I love in English literature, and in my opinion you draw out of the play more significance than anyone who has ever played the role. I've seen you three times already this week, and will see you again tonight, assuming you live that long. You seem to be seriously under the weather." At which point, in my imagination, he draws himself up into full Prince of Denmark, makes a mind's-eye flourish with a dirk or Yorick's skull, shouts, "The play's the thing!" and flounces out the door to meet his destiny.
I sat there like a stone.
Flash forward to 2014. My mother and I flew to New York to see my daughter for Easter. My daughter is studying the humanities these days, and her favorite work of literature (so far) is Shakespeare's King Lear. A few weeks ago, while doing a little internet search on Pennington, who (I discovered) also played Moff Jerjerrod, the commanding officer of the Death Star, in the film Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, and British Prime Minister Michael Foot in The Iron Lady, I learned that he is currently in New York performing as the lead in the Theatre for a New Audience production of King Lear. Somehow I managed to get tickets.
So on Easter Saturday my mother, my daughter, and I took our places in the theater to await Lear's fatal and appalling decision to force his three daughters to compete for a larger chunk of his kingdom by engaging in a demeaning flattery charade. "Who," says Lear, "shall we say doth love us most?" Over lunch nearby I had had second thoughts about the whole enterprise. "It's probably never a good idea to scratch one of the central myths of your life," I said. "What if he is mediocre, or broken by life? What if my youthful enthusiasm was totally misguided? Maybe it would have been better just to leave it alone in golden memory."
The Theatre for a New Audience approximates the dimensions of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London. The seating is steeply vertical. The large stage is entirely bare--no curtains, no proscenium.
Suddenly there he was, hair white as snow, bearded, his face not as tight as it was back in his "salad days." He had been a young Hamlet in the 1980s. He was young Lear now.
And he was magnificent. I don't know if Pennington would say Lear is a harder role than Hamlet or vice versa, but each of the great Shakespeare roles presents its own almost unbearable challenges. King Lear is about rage. Lear has to do a great deal of howling and raving and blaspheming over three long hours, and yet at times he has to speak in something like a broken whisper. Typically the actor gains the effect (of limitless outrage) by losing the audience to Shakespeare's fabulous and intricate language.
Not Michael Pennington. He was flawless. There are four or five great set pieces in the play, among the finest in all of literature. The audience needs to be able to follow the language with which Lear sees through the frumpery of Renaissance social and legal convention into the existential heart of things: man is, in essence, a "poor, bare, forked animal." Pennington perfectly embodied Lear and brought the character to life as I have never seen him before in film or on stage. There wasn't a false note in his magical performance.
I sat on the very edge of my seat, exulting, luxuriating, listening with all my might, crying, open-mouthed in wonder at the genius of Shakespeare and the genius of Michael Pennington. When we were settled in our taxi, my mother and daughter said merely, "Well?"
"It was stunning. He hasn't lost a step. And it is possible," I said, "that he is even finer as Lear than he was in Hamlet." Though one must never scratch a myth.
My only regret is that I could not stay in New York for two weeks and see Pennington as King Lear four more times, while haunting the New York Public Library between performances.