Michael Pennington

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Michael Pennington
Born (1943-06-07) 7 June 1943 (age 78)
Cambridge, England

Michael Vivian Fyfe Pennington (born 7 June 1943) is a British actor, director and writer. Together with director Michael Bogdanov, he founded the English Shakespeare Company in 1986 and was its Joint Artistic Director until 1992. He has written ten books, directed in the UK, US, Romania and Japan, and is an Honorary Associate Artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company.


Pennington was born in Cambridge, the son of a Scottish mother and a Welsh father and grew up in London. He was educated at Marlborough College, became a member of the National Youth Theatre and then read English at Trinity College, Cambridge.[1]

Theatre work

He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company on graduation and remained in a junior capacity from 1964 to 1966, playing among other things Fortinbras in David Warner's 1965 Hamlet. He then left the company for eight years and worked in London, both on the stage (in John Mortimer's The Judge, Christopher Hampton's Savages and Tony Richardson's production of Hamlet with Nicol Williamson), and on TV in many single dramas. He returned to the RSC in 1974 to play Angelo in Measure for Measure, beginning a relationship with the company as a leading actor which culminated in his own performance of Hamlet in 1980/81: he also played Berowne in Love's Labour's Lost, Edgar in King Lear, and in new work by David Rudkin, David Edgar and Howard Brenton and classic works by Sean O'Casey, Euripides and William Congreve. He then left the company for a further eight years before appearing in Stephen Poliakoff's Playing with Trains, and ten years after that in the title role of Timon of Athens. In the meanwhile he appeared at the National Theatre in 1984 in Tolstoy's Strider, for which he was nominated for an Olivier Award, in Otway's Venice Preserv'd, and also premiered his solo show Anton Chekhov which he has been regularly touring internationally ever since. He also played Raskolnikov in Yuri Lyubimov's famous adaptation of Crime and Punishment and Henry in Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing in London's West End and played the title role on Sophocles' Oedipus the King on BBC TV in 1985.

In 1986, Pennington and director Michael Bogdanov together founded the English Shakespeare Company. As joint artistic director, he starred in the company's inaugural productions of The Henrys and, in 1987, the seven-play history cycle of The Wars of the Roses, which toured worldwide and was televised. Pennington played such parts as Richard II, Prince Hal/Henry V and Jack Cade (Olivier Award Nomination). In subsequent seasons with the ESC, he played Leontes in The Winter's Tale and the title roles in Macbeth and Coriolanus (Olivier Award Nomination) and directed Twelfth Night, which he then also directed for the Haiyuza Company in Tokyo and for the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.

West End work in the 1990s included Peter Shaffer's Gift of the Gorgon, Filumena (Eduardo di Filippo), in which he played opposite Judi Dench for the third time; Archie Rice in The Entertainer, Claudius and the Ghost in Hamlet, Major Arnold in Taking Sides (Ronald Harwood), Oscar Wilde in Gross Indecency, Sir John Brute in Farquhar's The Provok’d Wife, Henry Trebell in Harley Granville Barker's Waste, Trigorin in The Seagull, the title role in Molière's The Misanthrope. In the first Harold Pinter Festival in Dublin he played in Pinter’s Old Times and One for the Road.

His stage work in the 2000s included Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw (National tour), the title role in The Guardsman (West End), Daivid Mamet's The Shawl (Crucible Theatre Sheffield), Walter Burns in The Front Page (Chichester Festival Theatre), the title roles in Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman, Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III and Dr Dorn in Chekhov's The Seagull, directed by Peter Stein for the Edinburgh Festival) In 2003 he directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and The Hamlet Project for the National Theatre in Bucharest. In 2005 he appeared in David Greig's The Cosmonaut’s Last Message... (Donmar Warehouse); Colder Than Here (Soho Theatre), and in the title role in Nathan the Wise (Hampstead Theatre).

He also played a sequence of real-life characters such as Sidney Cockerell in The Best of Friends (Hampstead Theatre 2006), 2007 : Robert Maxwell in The Bargain by Ian Curteis (2007), Charles Dickens in Little Nell by Simon Gray (2007), Wilhelm Furtwangler in Taking Sides and Richard Strauss in Collaboration by Ronald Harwood (Chichester and West End, 2008-9) He had previously played the other central role in Taking Sides in the West End.

In 2006 he premiered his second one man show, this one on Shakespeare, Sweet William, and in 2009 he worked with Peter Brook for the first time in Love is My Sin for a European Tour and in New York.

In 2010 he returned to Chichester to play the title role in Ibsen’s The Master Builder, and the following year Dr Fabio in The Syndicate by Eduardo de Filippo opposite Ian McKellen. In 2012 he played his fifth consecutive Chichester season as Antony in Antony and Cleopatra opposite Kim Cattrall.

Notable performances since then have been as Edgar in Strindberg's The Dance of Death, adapted by Howard Brenton at the Gate Theatre, John of Gaunt in Richard II (RSC), and as Anthony Blunt in Alan Bennett's Single Spies at the Rose Theatre Kingston.

In 2014 he triumphed in the title role in King Lear for Theatre for a New Audience in New York, a performance he plans to repeat in the UK), before undertaking a further tour of his solo Shakespeare show Sweet William (Oregon, Tel Aviv, France). He has recently finished recording the part of Euripides in Macedonia by David Rudkin for Radio 3, and in 2015 plans to take his solo show Anton Chekhov to Moscow.

He played Michael Foot in The Iron Lady with Meryl Streep; and among his notable TV appearances have been in the title role of "Oedipus the King" and in the television movie The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

He is the author of the book Are You There, Crocodile?[2] which combines biographical material about the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov with an account of the writing of his highly successful one-man show about Chekhov; the full text of which is included. He has also written three books about individual Shakespeare plays, "Sweet William - Twenty Thousand Hours with Shakespeare", and most recently Let Me Play the Lion Too - How to Be an Actor for Faber and Faber. His solo show "Sweet William" is available as a DVD. Pennington has also worked as a narrator on many TV documentaries.

In April 2004 he became the second actor, after Harley Granville-Barker in 1925, to deliver the British Academy's annual Shakespeare lecture. The lecture was entitled Barnadine's Straw: The Devil in Shakespeare's Detail.[3]

Selected stage credits



Year Title Role Notes
1969 Hamlet Laertes
1983 Return of the Jedi Moff Jerjerrod
2005 Fragile Marcus
2011 The Iron Lady Michael Foot


Year Title Role Notes
1965 The Wars of the Roses TV mini-series
1967 Sat'day While Sunday Adrian 2 episodes
1968 Middlemarch Will Ladislaw 7 episodes, TV mini-series
1972 Callan Martin 1 episode, An Affair of Honour
1977 The Witches of Pendle Minister TV movie
1982 Cymbeline Posthumus TV movie
1984 Waving to a Train Richard TV movie
1984 Freud Carl Jung 2 episodes, TV mini-series
1986 The Theban Plays by Sophocles Oedipus Rex Theban Plays: Oedipus the King
1987 The Return of Sherlock Holmes Sherlock Holmes TV movie
1989 Summer's Lease Hugh Pargeter 4 episodes, TV mini-series
1994 Degas and Pissarro Fall Out Degas Short
2003 State of Play Richard Siegler 1 episode
2003 The Bill Judge Howard Sinclair 6 episodes
2008 The Tudors Abbot 1 episode, Matters of State
2016 Father Brown Bishop Reynard Episode 4.5 "The Daughter of Autolycus"


  • Rossya: A Journey through Siberia (1977)
  • Txèkhov - Un monòleg sobre la vida d'Anton Txèkhov (1989)(Catalan translation of Anton Chekhov) ISBN 84-297-2876-7
  • "The English Shakespeare Company - The Story of the Wars of the Roses" (with Michael Bogdanov) (1990)
  • Hamlet: A User's Guide (1996)
  • Twelfth Night: A User's Guide (2000)
  • Are You There Crocodile? Inventing Anton Chekhov (2003)
  • A Pocket Guide to Ibsen, Chekhov and Strindberg (2004)
  • A Midsummer Night's Dream: A User's Guide (2005)
  • Sweet William: Twenty Thousand Hours with Shakespeare (2012)
  • "Let Me Play the Lion Too - How to Be an Actor" (2015)


  1. "The Latest Prince", The Sunday Telegraph, July 1980, Daniel Farson. Accessed 4 August 2014
  2. Oberon Books, London, 2003
  3. Proceedings of the British Academy, vol 131, 2004 Lectures, pp 205-227
  4. Hamlet:A User's Guide, p 7
  5. Are You There Crocodile? Inventing Anton Chekhov

Sweet William: A User's Guide to Shakespeare Nick Hern books, Published 2012

External links