172 pp. + end notes
Although it is inadequate as a biography and badly produced as a book (with black and white photos that look like badly streaked Xeroxes), Mary Maher’s tribute to the late Nicholas Pennell can be recommended to any student of acting. A Shakespearean scholar who lives in Ashland, Oregon, where she writes and lectures about Shakespearean performance on stage and film, Maher is a theatre enthusiast who communicates her love of a subject to her readers. Her most recent book, Actors Talk About Shakespeare, is a better book, but Nicholas Pennell is as much a labour of love and a treasury of talents and tactics as that one. She selected Nicholas Pennell because of his charisma, sagacity, discernment, and his own great love for Shakespeare and acting, but, aware that he was not necessarily a household name for many theatre-goers, she wisely fills in biographical background on the actor who trained at RADA, first came to public notice in England (when he played Michael Mont in the unforgettable television series The Forsyte Saga), accumulated an immense amount of professional credits on the BBC, but who really came into his full artistic maturity in Canada at the Stratford Festival, where he played 77 parts, including the title roles in Pericles, Richard II, Macbeth, Hamlet, and King John—some of which he was very good in—and where he was especially outstanding as Orlando, Proteus, Charles Marlow, Ariel, John Worthing, Iago, Richard of Gloucester, Leonard Woolf, and Siegfried Sassoon. Pennell was blond, handsome, barrel chested, and robust in voice. His acting was unfussy and always aimed at the spine, heart, and soul of a character. He did not seek to glamorize what he played, but he could lure an audience with his special brilliance, such as grace of movement, baritone huskiness that made clear sense of the language, and a gesture that could summarize the meaning of a moment. He died on February 22, 1995 of lymphatic cancer at the age of 56. He should have died hereafter; there would have been time for such a word.
Maher first noticed Pennell on stage at Stratford in the 1994 production of Cyrano de Bergerac, starring Colm Feore: “I was aware that at a certain point, someone had entered, back to the audience at the rear of the stage. It was a very strong, authoritative presence, and I began to wish he would turn around. Once he did, a threatening element had clearly invaded the scene, and another of the power centers of the play had been established. About five minutes later, it hit me that this was the man I’d interviewed a few days before, this was Nicholas Pennell playing Comte de Guiche.”
Maher’s book should not be read as a biography. It isn’t one—not in any accepted sense of a detailed narrative of a life and career. For one thing, the author interviewed Pennell only for six hours over a two-day period, and this could hardly be taken as an in-depth exploration of the actor’s background, training, career, and personal life. Though there are personal and intimate revelations shared by some of Pennell’s colleagues—Richard Monette, Marti Maraden, Stephen Ouimette, Pat Galloway, and a few others—the biographical sections are skin deep, and they leave out much more than they include. Who, for instance, was Pennell’s significant other at Stratford? Why and when did that particular relationship end? What was it, precisely, that drove Pennell into a gloomy reclusiveness in the last couple of years of his life? What was Pennell like off-stage in public and in private? How did his homosexuality influence his acting and shape his life? These are important questions for a biographer, but they are hardly raised, much less answered.
However, the book does provide a useful sketch of Pennell’s beginnings. He was born in Devon on November 19, 1938, and lived his boyhood on a farm in “Bomb Alley,” “the corridor between Plymouth and the Channel,” where the Germans were trying to hit the dockyards. His father was a weak man, not trained to do anything of significance, and he was soon estranged from his son after the divorce from Nicholas’ mother, who turned out to be alcoholic. Nicholas had a younger brother, Robin, but remained mousey till 16, living in his fertile imagination. In high school he played roles usually identified with Margaret Leighton, and when he was accepted at 18 by RADA, his peers would turn out to be world-shakers as actors: Tom Courtney, Peter O’Toole, Albert Finney, and Brian Bedford. Pennell was probably regarded more as a handsome lightweight than a real character actor. In any event, he did appear in over 200 television programs before arriving in Canada—first at the wooing of William Hutt to play Orlando opposite Carol Shelley in 1972, and then at the tempting of Jean Gascon who offered him Pericles the next season. One of the chief enticements about Canada was that it wasn’t England: the traditions of theatre were not yet forged in a way that got in the way of pioneer enthusiasm and fresh discovery.
Stratford made him a great character actor—and this is where Maher’s book gets really interesting for theatre fans because of her strength as an expositor of technique. Maher summarizes some of the actor’s outstanding qualities pithily: “He had reached the Stanislavskian ideal of being so much a part of the play that the audience was seeing the play and not the star, hearing the text and not the performer.” Pennell himself, of course, is of great help in the matter because he considered acting a sort of memoir and he was ever interested in probing text (for what it could deliver as a way into a role) and technique (for how it aided such a process of discovery and exploration). Pennell was an avid reader of great poetry and acting theory. It is not surprising that he taught acting in the summer at the University of Michigan, where Maher had obtained her Ph.D. Readers of this book will have the considerable benefit of some of his practical advice about verse-speaking, analyzing text, discovering subtext, rehearsals, and keeping the actor’s instruments in shape. Readers will also have the benefit of Pennell on Robin Phillips’ approach to acting, Canadian nationalism, the idea of theatre as transubstantiation, and acting as an eclectic scavenging as well as an elevation of the actor’s own experiences. Pennell believed deeply in instinct, the subconscious, and, most of all, the actor’s “wound” that should be kept bleeding so that emotional recall could always be accurate and truthful. Nicholas Pennell was a fine actor who truly believed that insights into acting should be passed on to newer generations. His eloquence on stage was matched by his articulateness off stage. This book pays him due homage.
Go Back to: Book Reviews