The sweet Bard

You can brush up your Shakespeare at the International Shakespeare Festival in Tel Aviv

Bard (photo credit: JOHN HAYNE)
(photo credit: JOHN HAYNE)
Considering the fact that William Shakespeare was a pretty prolific wordsmith, putting out an estimated 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems and possibly a few other verses, anyone could be forgiven for not having a handle on the entire Shakespearean oeuvre. If that is your personal “predicament”, fear not. Michael Pennington has the perfect answer.
The upcoming International Shakespeare Festival, which will take place at the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv from October 28 to November 15, features a rich roster of foreign and local productions, most of which are based on the Bard’s more popular works, such as Macbeth , Hamlet , The Merry Wives of Windsor and Richard II .
There are productions from Romania, Poland, Georgia, Slovenia and Poland and, yes, even one from England.
The latter, which offers the aforementioned Shakespearean overview solution, will bring us Sweet William , a one-man show presented by Pennington that incorporates excerpts of plays and poetry, as well as anecdotal asides.
There can’t be many thespians better qualified than the septuagenarian actor, producer and director to enlighten us about Shakespeare – the man and his works – including some of his more obscure plays.
As a person who has been living and breathing Shakespeare and presenting his works for many a decade, Pennington may well be besotted with the Bard.
“I wouldn’t say ‘besotted’ because that suggests the early stages of a relationship,” he says with a chuckle. “This is something that started 60 years ago when my parents, who were not in any way interested in the theater as such, decided when I was 11 that it would probably be good for me to see a Shakespeare play.”
Little did Mr. and Mrs. Pennington know at the time, but that recreational excursion was to be a life-changing experience for the lad.
Mind you, it is not as if Pennington was exactly thrilled at the prospect of spending a couple of hours sitting on a theater seat.
“They took me to see Macbeth , and I didn’t really want to go,” he recalls. “I wanted to play football, of course.”
The budding soccer player was in for the shock of his life.
“As the play started and the lights went down, and while it was still dark, there was this heart- rending scream through the darkness, and when the lights came up there were the three witches rising up from behind three boulders, and a man came running on stage covered in blood.
That was all in the first 10 seconds!” he recounts.
There was no turning back for Pennington after that.
“I sat on the edge of my seat, and I stayed there for the rest of  my life,” he says.
The Penningtons hadn’t expected their son to respond so strongly to what was ostensibly just a family afternoon out, and the actor says, tongue-in-cheek, that they lived to regret their choice of entertainment.
“I rushed home and started reading Shakespeare plays – out loud, mind you; I could never read Shakespeare to myself. My parents suffered terribly, and throughout my adolescence I demanded to be taken to every Shakespeare play that was available to see. That was the ‘besotted’ period. I’ve done an awful lot of Shakespeare, and I’ve been very fortunate to do all the parts I’ve wanted to play, with the single exception of Romeo,” he notes.
Pennington admits that, undying love of the Bard’s work notwithstanding, he sometimes needs a break, so he plays roles in non-Shakespearean plays and films. But there is still a lot of the wide-eyed ardent Shakespeare fan of six decades ago about Pennington.
“If you gave me a couple of pages of quotes from poems of the same period, I would always know which ones were by Shakespeare, even if I don’t know them, because there is just something about the sound of it that I would almost always know it was Shakespeare. I think I know this gentleman well by now. I know what his tricks are,” he says.
Pennington has been performing Sweet William for many years all over the globe and to all sorts of audiences.
He once said, “I’ve been around the block with him [Shakespeare] many times, from Buckingham Palace to Her Majesty’s Prisons, from the British Academy to dodging the rats falling from the rafters in Mumbai.”
He has also always been keen to present as wide a view as possible of the Bard’s works. He uses Sweet William as a vehicle for introducing the public to some of Shakespeare’s lesser texts, such as Prince Mamillius, based on the character from a Winter’s Tale ; Pericles, Prince of Tyre , a Jacobean play written at least in part by Shakespeare; and Queen Margaret , based on the wife of the titular character of Henry VI .
A scholar of Shakespeare once noted that one of the Bard’s greatest skills was to incorporate English words that originate from different languages and to balance, for example, words from a German source with those of a Latin-based origin. Pennington says the playwright-poet also added to the vocabulary of Elizabethan England and introduced words and phrases that are still in use today.
“He invented words,” says Pennington, adding that this was probably largely due to the multicultural environment around him. “I think he lived in a kind of polyglot London. I think he was listening to Spaniards and Italians and the Irish and the Scots. In fact, I think London then was almost as multi-ethnic as it is now.
I think he heard all sorts of languages and all sorts of usages that would have appealed to him.
And what he didn’t pick up, he invented for himself. I don’t know exactly how many words he added to the language, but I think it’s around 2,000.”
In addition to his Shakespearean acting and directing endeavor, Pennington has also produced several tomes on the Bard’s work and life.
“In a book of mine, I constructed an entire one-page dialogue that has to do with modern phrases that Shakespeare invented,” he says. “Right now, of course, I can’t think of a single one,” he laughs.
No matter. A 19th-century American professor of Latin and Greek noted that Shakespeare’s vocabulary, at more than 24,000 words, was far larger than that of any other writer: 7,000 more than Milton and over 15,000 more than Homer.
Among the Shakespearean linguistic inventions, you can find words such “champion,” “elbow,” “dwindle,” “impartial,” “swagger” and “grovel.”
It is safe to say that the daily life of any speaker or appreciator of the English language has been greatly enriched by William Shakespeare, whether he or she knows it or not.
For tickets and more information: 1-700-707-990 and