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October 2003
Meeting Michael Pennington
Written by Phil Penfold
The Madness of King George
The Madness of King George
The Madness of George III starts at the Birmingham Rep on 22nd October.

Phil Penfold caught up with Michael Pennington, who plays King George.
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FACTS

The Madness of George III by Alan Bennett is showing at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre from 22nd October until 15th November.

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Michael Pennington is about to star (as George III) in a rare UK stage revival of Alan Bennett's The Madness Of George III at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

Actor, author, director - there don't seem to be many vacant moments in Michael Pennington's very busy life.

This year alone he's seen his latest book published, he's done an extensive UK tour of Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman, he's performing The Madness of George III at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and he's just finished playing Doctor Dorn in The Seagull, which was one of the undisputed sell-out hits of the Edinburgh Festival.

A respected and admired actor

Michael Pennington is one of the most respected and admired stage actors of his generation. And yet he has never actively courted wider recognition on film or television. It has avoided him. Or maybe he has avoided it? Which is possibly why, without the burden of carrying a screen persona around with him, he has been able to slip into every theatre role he chooses.

The Madness of George III will be his first foray into Alan Bennett territory. And it's his debut at The REP. But why The Madness?

Why choose The Madness?

Pennington replied simply that he was talking to Ian Brown (the Artistic Director and Chief Executive of West Yorkshire Playhouse) earlier in the year, and pushed the idea that it would be interesting to "mount a major revival of a really strong play, a modern classic, that had not been given the attention, for one reason or another, that it really deserved."

"Bennett's play was first done at the National, and then by them on tour, and rarely since, but it wasn't one that I'd initially thought of - it was Ian's clever idea."

With a large cast, it has proved beyond the capabilities of commercial companies and regional theatres - until now. The combined forces and resources of The REP and that of the West Yorkshire Playhouse make it possible, and Pennington, for one, is delighted.

A way forward for theatres

"I think that the combination of the two theatre’s for this (and the co-production of A View From The Bridge) is ingenious, and courageous, and a way forward for regional theatres to do things that are really rather special", he said.

When he was approached to play the stricken King he agreed without hesitation: "I think that one of my failings", he said, "is that I am not very good at making choices for myself. I like to be approached with ideas. I'm a bit like the girl in the corner, waiting to be asked to dance!"

A remarkable monarch

He's loving working on The Madness of George III (which is directed by Rachel Kavanaugh) "and I'm growing fonder of the king by the day. He was a rather remarkable monarch, in that he took a very genuine interest in his subjects and, in effect, was the inventor of the 'Royal Walkabout'.

"He'd be out riding somewhere, and thought nothing of popping into one of his subjects' cottages, and talking to them about the weather, the price of turnips, or what their crops were doing. He was nicknamed 'Farmer George', and one can see why. He had a very real naturalness, and that was rare, well, unknown, in those days. I'd call him an 'instinctive democrat', not at all remote, and very approachable.

"And, did you know, he actually got married on the day he met his wife? An arranged dynastic union, but they fell in love with each other, had fifteen children together (two of whom died in infancy), and were faithful to each other until the day that they died.

"And, remember, he lived until his early eighties. They called themselves 'Mr and Mrs King', which was rather sweet. I admire George very much, and all his many idiosyncrasies. When his doctors gave him medication, for example, he'd always multiply the dose, in the belief that more was a lot better for him than less. A tumbler instead of a teaspoon.

" But above all, I like the way, in spite of all his tribulations, his motto seemed to be 'let's get on with it, and go forward!'"

Interview by Phil Penfold.

Details of the production

The Madness of George III by Alan Bennett is showing at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre from 22nd October until 15th November.

Tickets can be obtained from the Box Office on 0121 236 445 or you can book online at www.birmingham-rep.co.uk


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