The Little Angel is a puppet theatre. It’s normal, then, for every onstage performer to have an invisible companion guiding their moves. And in a sense, Sweet William is no exception. For, although this is a solo piece performed by a live actor, you could say there are always two people in this show: Michael Pennington, the actor, and William Shakespeare, a tantalising unseen presence. For this is not simply a show about Shakespeare. It is a personal response from a fine actor who fell for Shakespeare at the age of 11 and has been in thrall ever since.
The piece’s appeal lies partly in its simplicity. Pennington stands, or occasionally sits, on an unadorned stage and talks to us. On one level he offers a quick jog through Shakespeare’s life; on another he gives the narrative of his relationship with the playwright’s work. The show is laced with anecdotes, historical insights and textual analysis, all delivered with easy charm.
Pennington offers a vivid picture of the London that Shakespeare first encountered, describing London Bridge, with its public convenience perched perilously over the River Thames. He suggests that the writer’s missing years (between childhood in Stratford and arrival in London) could have been spent as a travelling player. He talks about Shakespeare’s innovative use of the soliloquy, and sets it in the context of the size of the Elizabethan stage. He discusses the emotional import of Shakespeare’s choice to lurch from “high poetry to intimate human detail” and the trust this places in the actor to take that moment forward.
But what makes the show is that Pennington is able to show us glimpses of Shakespeare’s genius in action. He slips suddenly into one character or another, paying particular attention to the very young, the very old and those on the sidelines. And he demonstrates Shakespeare’s ability to catch you unawares with a heartfelt performance of Francis Flute’s lament for Pyramus (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream) that reveals how moving this apparently clumsy speech can be.