BROOKLYN, Feb. 10 – Michael Pennington, two-time Olivier Award nominee, an artist of international stature and one of England’s greatest classical actors, will play the title role in William Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear directed by Arin Arbus. For the second production in Theatre for a New Audience’s inaugural season at its first permanent home, the new Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place in Brooklyn, Mr. Pennington leads a company of 22 actors. King Lear begins previews March 14 for an opening March 27 and a run through May 4.
Theatre for a New Audience’s production is the sixth major King Lear this season. Others are in London, Stratford, Canada and New York this season.
Jeffrey Horowitz, founding artistic director, asks, “What does it say about us culturally that there are these many productions? This is a play about a King; written for a King that investigates what is a King. King Lear is most often directed by men. Of the current six productions, Arin Arbus is the only female director and it is the first time she will direct the play.”
“Michael has never played Lear. I introduced Michael to Arin in 2010 when he appeared with Natasha Parry in our Love Is My Sin, adapted and directed by Peter Brook from the sonnets of Shakespeare. Over four years, they’ve investigated the play. Michael and Arin, the veteran British actor and the young American director, are a good mix. They are ready to do the play and I’m very excited that they now have the chance to explore why it speaks so powerfully to us today.”
With King Lear, Theatre for a New Audience has produced 32 of Shakespeare’s 37 plays. Audiences will get to experience Lear in the Scripps main-stage, which has extraordinary acoustics and an intimate 265 seats. “The Scripps’s thrust configuration brings the performer and audience into an unfiltered, direct and honest relationship that serves Shakespeare’s work well. It’s like the relationship in Shakespeare’s original theatres, the Globe, Curtain, Rose and Black friars,” observes Michael Boyd, former artistic director, Royal Shakespeare Company.
Michael Pennington, Honorary Associate of the Royal Shakespeare Company, has been in the front ranks of English actors for forty years. Michael Billington, theatre critic for London’s Guardian, and Benedict Nightingale, theatre critic of The Times, voted Mr. Pennington’s 1980 portrayal of Hamlet at the RSC one of the ten best in fifty years of theatergoing.
In a remarkable career, Mr. Pennington has been twice nominated for the Olivier Award, was Co-Founder and Joint Artistic Director of the English Shakespeare Company with Michael Bogdanov from 1986 to 1992. He created and performed solo shows Sweet William, about William Shakespeare, and Anton Chekhov. He is the author of eight books including Are You There, Crocodile? Inventing Anton Chekhov (2003, Oberon Books) and Sweet William, Twenty Thousand Hours with Shakespeare (2012, Nick Hern Books). Mr. Pennington collaborated with the German director Peter Stein and Russia’s Yuri Lyubimov. He has also directed and taught in Romania, the U.S. and Japan.
In addition to Hamlet, his Shakespearean portrayals include Berowne, Coriolanus, Macbeth, Henry V and Richard II. For the BBC, he played Posthumus in Cymbeline opposite Helen Mirren. At Chichester Festival Theatre, he played Antony in Antony and Cleopatra with Kim Cattrall.
Apart from Shakespeare, Mr. Pennington’s appearances in classics, modern classics and contemporary plays have ranged from Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment to Oscar Wilde in Moises Kaufman’s Gross Indecency. He and Judi Dench have portrayed Mirabell and Millamant in Congreve’s The Way of the World and played together in Filumena by De Filippo. He has also performed leading roles in plays by Chekhov, Euripides, Mamet, Ibsen, O’Casey, Osborne, Pinter and Stoppard. He was just nominated for the 2013 Off West End Award for Howard Brenton’s adaptation of Strindberg’s Dances of Death. Mr. Pennington’s recent television and film roles include Arthur Harris in Churchill at War (2009) and Michel Foot in Iron Lady opposite Meryl Street (2011).
Arin Arbus is Associate Artistic Director of Theatre for a New Audience. King Lear is the sixth Shakespeare play she has staged for the company. She made her Off-Broadway debut in 2009 directing Othello, featuring Ned Eisenberg as Iago, Juliet Rylance as Desdemona and John Douglas Thompson in the title role. Othello was nominated for Lortel Award for Best Revival, and The New York Times recognized Ms. Arbus as “the most gifted new director to emerge in 2009.” Mr. Thompson received the Lortel and OBIE Awards. Ms. Arbus went on to stage at Theatre for a New Audience’s Measure for Measure, which featured Jefferson Mays as the Duke and again received the Lortel Award nomination; Macbeth (John Douglas Thompson and Annika Boras), The Taming of the Shrew (Maggie Siff and Andy Grotelueschen), and Much Ado About Nothing (Maggie Siff and Jonathan Cake – 2013 Callaway Award, Outstanding Performance).
A Drama League Directing Fellow and a Princess Grace Awardee, Ms. Arbus has worked on contemporary plays at Soho Rep.’s Writer/Director Lab, FringeNYC, HERE Arts Center, Juilliard and Williamstown. In association with Rehabilitation through the Arts, Ms. Arbus has, for five years led a theatre company for inmates at Woodbourne Correctional Facility, a medium- security prison in upstate New York. Ms. Arbus recently directed Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia at Houston Grand Opera and La Traviata at The Lyric Opera of Chicago.
About his collaboration with Arin Arbus and TFANA, Mr. Pennigton says, “I’d been asked to play Lear before in the U.K. If you’ve played Hamlet, Macbeth Richard II and others, people expect you’ll be getting ready for Lear. But, you have to be careful and not do it because it’s there. Only when it sets your blood running. About four years ago, I realized that I was probably ready for it. Most decisions in the theatre are based on hunches. I had the strongest intuition that I wanted to work with Arin. And, I love working with American artists on Shakespeare. For all sorts of reasons, he gives both sides a great meeting ground.”
Arin Arbus shared, “I have talked with Jeffrey about directing this play for years. I first saw Michael in Love Is My Sin and was knocked out by his sensitivity with and command of Shakespeare’s language, and how he created complex and vivid relationships onstage. Both interested in Lear, our discussions lead to a workshop. Michael explored a powerful King losing his grip on power, losing his grip on his mind and his sense of self. Instinctively, I felt he could do the role. And I wanted to take the plunge with him.”
King Lear was first performed for King James in 1606. In a speech to Parliament, James said, “Kings were justly called Gods and exercised Divine power on earth.” At the beginning of the play, King Lear shares James’s beliefs. However, following his decision to divide his kingdom between two of his daughters and give his third daughter nothing, the state and family break apart. The self follows.
Ms. Arbus adds, “Shakespeare challenges the foundations of Western civilization: the absurdity of privilege, entitlement, social and economic hierarchies, and man’s assertion of his power over nature.”
In addition to Mr. Pennington, the cast is Bianca Amato* as Regan, Terry Doe* as France, Mark H. Dold* as Oswald, Lilly Englert* as Cordelia, Jacob Fishel* as Edgar, Jake Horowitz* as Fool, Robert Langdon Lloyd* Old Man and Doctor, Christopher McCann* as Gloucester, Saxon Palmer* as Cornwall, Rachel Pickup* as Goneril, Jon Stewart, Jr. as Burgundy, Timothy D. Stickney* as Kent, Chandler Williams* as Edmund, and Graham Winton* as Albany. The Ensemble is Benjamin Cole, Jason Gray, Jonathan Hooks, Patrick McAndrew, Ryan McCarthy, Ian Temple and Ariel Zuckerman.
Scenery is by Riccardo Hernandez, costumes by Susan Hilferty and lighting by Marcus Doshi. The composer is Michael Attias, fights are by B.H. Barry and company voice work is by Andrew Wade. Renee Lutz* is production stage manager.