‘He left Bri­tish the­atre in­fin­itely richer than he found it’

Sir Peter Hall 1930-2017

The Guardian - - FRONT PAGE - Michael Billing­ton

Peter Hall was a man of in­fi­nite con­tra­dic­tions. In public, he ex­uded con­fi­dence, author­ity and the gift for lead­er­ship that en­abled him to both found the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany and over­come the man­i­fold crises sur­round­ing the early days of the Na­tional The­atre. Yet, hav­ing in­ter­viewed Hall count­less times over the past 40 years, I also saw that he was vul­ner­a­ble, sen­si­tive and even some­times strangely soli­tary. I have a vivid mem­ory of trav­el­ling to Athens in the mid-1980s with a party of crit­ics to see Hall’s pro­duc­tion of Co­ri­olanus, with Ian McKellen, staged in the Herod At­ti­cus the­atre. One morn­ing we an­nounced we were go­ing to Athens’s Na­tional Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Mu­seum. “Do you mind if I come with you?” Hall asked, al­most apolo­get­i­cally. It was a sud­den glimpse into the lone­li­ness of a di­rec­tor once the task of get­ting the show up and run­ning has been achieved.

Long be­fore I got to know Hall, or even write about his work, I had fol­lowed his ca­reer. I first saw his work at Strat­ford in the late 1950s when a slightly chilly Love’s Labour’s Lost was fol­lowed by a bliss­ful Twelfth Night, a sym­phony in rus­set staged in Caro­line cos­tume, and an over­whelm­ing Co­ri­olanus, this time with Lau­rence Olivier.

Given the two men’s che­quered re­la­tion­ship when Hall suc­ceeded Olivier at the Na­tional, it is fas­ci­nat­ing to re­call how much the young di­rec­tor brought out of the great ac­tor. This was vin­tage Olivier who gave us a Co­ri­olanus full of emo­tional power, phys­i­cal au­dac­ity and with­er­ing irony. When Hall cre­ated the RSC, the pro­duc­tion that de­fined the en­sem­ble spirit of the com­pany was un­doubt­edly The Wars of the Roses, which of­fered a con­fla­tion, achieved by John Bar­ton, of the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III.

Today we ex­pect to see the plays given in their en­tirety. But Hall’s pro­duc­tion was ex­actly right for the early 1960s. Its cyn­i­cism about pow­er­pol­i­tics co­in­cided with a year of Tory dis­ar­ray in which Harold Macmil­lan’s sud­den res­ig­na­tion pro­voked a pe­riod of un­seemly back­stab­bing. Its chau­vin­ist por­trait of the per­fid­i­ous French re­minded us of De Gaulle’s peremp­tory veto of Bri­tish mem­ber­ship of the EEC. Even the as­sas­si­na­tion of Pres­i­dent Kennedy

seemed to chime with the work’s por­trayal of power as some­thing sub­ject to ar­bi­trary ex­tinc­tion.

Hall’s work for the RSC was vi­brant, ur­gent and ex­cit­ing. In 1965, against the ad­vice of all his col­leagues, he staged Harold Pin­ter’s The Home­com­ing in the large Ald­wych the­atre: a pro­duc­tion of metic­u­lous pre­ci­sion, in which ac­tors such as Paul Rogers, Ian Holm and John Norm­ing­ton ap­plied their Shake­spearean ex­per­tise to the am­bi­gu­i­ties of Pin­ter’s text. That same year, Hall di­rected a Strat­ford Ham­let in which a young David Warner seemed to echo the baf­fled alien­ation of a whole 60s gen­er­a­tion. In between th­ese pro­duc­tions, Hall di­rected Schoen­berg’s opera Moses and Aaron at Covent Gar­den with a cast of 300 and an on­stage orgy that in­duced me to get a stand­ing ticket for the first night.

Hall later con­fessed to me that he left the RSC too early, in 1968: his work was not done but he was ex­hausted and he had found, in Trevor Nunn, an ideal suc­ces­sor. Un­like King Lear, Hall al­ways had the ca­pac­ity to re­lin­quish power and to dis­cover tal­ent in the next gen­er­a­tion. On that trip to Athens for Co­ri­olanus, I re­mem­ber Hall gave me an ex­traor­di­nar­ily can­did in­ter­view in which he said he was aim­ing to leave the Na­tional and wanted Richard Eyre to suc­ceed him. “My only fear,” he said, “is that the board may think he is too left­wing.” Hap­pily, Eyre be­came the duly ap­pointed heir.

Hall’s ten­ure at the Na­tional from 1973 to 1988 is a sub­ject in it­self and en­com­passes a wide range of work. I in­tem­per­ately loathed his open­ing masque-like pro­duc­tion of The Tem­pest, when the com­pany was still at the Old Vic, and said it was one of the worst Shake­spearean pro­duc­tions I had ever seen: a rash state­ment given some of the dreck of re­cent years. Hall went on to do mas­terly pro­duc­tions of Ib­sen’s John Gabriel Bork­man, Pin­ter’s No Man’s Land and Mar­lowe’s im­pos­si­ble Tam­burlaine the Great. His work later went into de­cline with oddly neu­tral, unimag­i­na­tive pro­duc­tions of Volpone, The Coun­try Wife and ‘Peter Hall was a man for all sea­sons – he could play any part needed. He told me once, “I’m go­ing now to see some­body in the gov­ern­ment and of course I’ll put on my pussy­cat face.” That is what en­abled him to bring about such rad­i­cal change. Con­sider what he did with the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany at Strat­ford, which no one be­fore him had been able to do. When he started with the RSC, he said, “I can’t do it alone,” and asked me to help him run it with the re­spected French di­rec­tor Michel Saint-De­nis. I was very young. It was typ­i­cal of his gen­eros­ity and his vi­sion. It’s no use be­ing open and gen­er­ous and hav­ing vi­sion un­less you have a con­crete knowl­edge of what’s needed: what must be changed, what the op­po­si­tion could be, how far you can go and when you just have to wait. He had all th­ese gifts. Peter’s wasn’t a high­brow the­atre or a low­brow, pop­u­lar the­atre but the truly Shake­spearean art of blend­ing all those things. We were close friends. He was warm, af­fa­ble, gen­er­ous. The se­cret to Peter was that he had a great, sim­ple and en­gag­ing charm which was one of his nat­u­ral as­sets. That’s what made him so per­sua­sive.’ The Cherry Or­chard. It may have been be­cause he was spread­ing him­self too thinly or be­cause of the pres­sures in his pri­vate life.

But he brought all his op­er­atic in­stinct to Peter Shaf­fer’s Amadeus in 1979 and there­after re­cov­ered his lost form. Hall’s fi­nal achieve­ment was a se­quence of Shake­speare’s late plays that were very good at the Na­tional and even bet­ter when I saw them on tour in Tbil­isi where they were stripped of their orig­i­nal set and cos­tumes be­cause of Soviet trans­port prob­lems. It was a mea­sure of Hall’s rapt at­ten­tion to the verse, as well as to the re­source­ful­ness of the ac­tors, that they tran­scended the dearth of decor.

But what I most admired about Hall at the Na­tional was his tenac­ity in with­stand­ing in­dus­trial ac­tion, per­sis­tent at­tacks from dis­ap­pointed mem­bers of the Olivier regime and me­dia abuse. This came to a head in 1986 with a lead story in the Sun­day Times – head­lined Laugh­ing all the way to the bank – al­leg­ing that Hall at the Na­tional and Trevor Nunn at the RSC were, in ef­fect, ex­ploit­ing their priv­i­leged po­si­tion for their own com­mer­cial ad­van­tage.

In fact, I think there were loop­holes in direc­tors’ con­tracts that the Cork in­quiry into English the­atre, of which I was a mem­ber, sought to ad­dress: we pro­posed that no di­rec­tor should ever make more money from a com­mer­cial trans­fer than the pro­duc­ing the­atre. But what struck me at the time, and

does so still, was that the Sun­day Times story was in­tended as an as­sault on the sub­sidised sec­tor and used Hall and Nunn as con­ve­nient whip­ping boys.

Shortly af­ter this I made a long TV pro­file of Hall with Derek Bai­ley that gave me many in­sights into the man him­self. I re­mem­ber a rainy day film­ing at Hall’s Sus­sex home where his young daugh­ter, Re­becca, showed a re­mark­able ca­pac­ity to en­ter­tain her­self. Hall was also highly crit­i­cal of his early work: es­pe­cially his fa­mous 1955 Wait­ing for Godot which, he said, was overdec­o­ra­tive and filled the si­lences with wispy frag­ments of Bartók.

But Hall also struck me as a mix­ture of the ad­ven­tur­ous and the con­ser­va­tive: pas­sion­ate in his be­lief in new writ­ing but ul­tra-cau­tious when I chal­lenged him on the Na­tional’s fail­ure to pro­mote women direc­tors.

Af­ter he left the Na­tional, Hall’s ca­reer was peri­patetic and pe­ri­od­i­cally pro­duc­tive: he seemed like a di­rec­tor in need of a sta­ble fi­nancier. He oc­ca­sion­ally found one and did won­der­ful pro­duc­tions such as a West End Wild Duck in 1990 with Alex Jen­nings. But the great dream of Hall in his later years was to re­viv­ify the Old Vic, and there was a time in the mid-1990s when this started to hap­pen. He ini­ti­ated a seven-day op­er­a­tion, cre­ated a reg­u­lar com­pany and, with the aid of Do­minic Drom­goole, made new plays part of the reper­tory along­side es­tab­lished clas­sics. It was a bold, imag­i­na­tive idea and when it fell apart, be­cause the Old Vic’s own­ers de­cided to sell the build­ing, Hall was pal­pa­bly crushed.

For­tu­nately he later found a per­ma­nent home at the The­atre Royal, Bath, where he ap­proached the stan­dard reper­tory with fresh in­sight: never more so than in a Much Ado About Noth­ing that brought out the la­tent ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity in Don John’s re­la­tion­ship to Clau­dio.

But, inevitably, there was a sad­ness in Hall’s later years. I re­mem­ber a public in­ter­view with him at the Gal­way in­ter­na­tional arts fes­ti­val in 2009. It was sug­gested we should meet for lunch in ad­vance to map out the ter­ri­tory: some­thing un­heard of with the highly ar­tic­u­late Hall. All went well un­til we touched on the sub­ject of Shake­spearean verse-speak­ing. “Peo­ple some­times ac­cuse me of be­ing …” said Hall and then sud­denly words failed him. “An iambic fun­da­men­tal­ist?” I prompted and Hall, re­cov­er­ing his nerve, said: “Yes, that’s it.” It was a small mo­ment but a hint of the on­set of de­men­tia.

When I last in­ter­viewed him on his 80th birth­day, he was mel­low, re­flec­tive and told me he had a lot of luck in his life and been blessed with do­ing the job he adored. What he didn’t say was that he had also made his own luck and left the Bri­tish the­atre, through his work at the RSC and the Na­tional and his un­remit­ting cham­pi­onship of the sub­sidy prin­ci­ple, in­fin­itely richer than he had found it. ‘Peter Hall had author­ity and, as a the­atre heavy­weight, real pres­ence. With those won­der­ful Fe­dora hats that he wore, he had an old-school style and al­ways looked debonair.

Af­ter I se­cured the rights to Piaf, Pam Gems’ play about the iconic French singer, I thought shall I dare ask him to direct? It was a play with mu­sic and he wasn’t known for mu­sic the­atre. I wasn’t sure if he’d be keen on that – or on work­ing with me. I in­tro­duced my­self, told him I was look­ing for a di­rec­tor, and his eyes lit up and he gath­ered me in his arms. He put to­gether an amaz­ing cast and we took it on tour into the West End. There were never any strong words when you worked with Peter as he cre­ated an en­vi­ron­ment that was calm and fun. He was full of en­cour­age­ment. But he didn’t beat around the bush. He had the bright­est mind and a clear view of what he wanted. Later, he asked me to do Molière’s com­edy The Misan­thrope. He knew I wanted to de­velop as an ac­tor and gave me the chance – I’ll al­ways be grate­ful for that. It was my first ma­jor role in a West End show that wasn’t a mu­si­cal.

A few years ago there was a party for him at the Na­tional. I’ve never seen so many stars under one roof. It was a priv­i­lege to know him.’

With­out him there would have been no RSC Ni­cholas Hyt­ner Not only a thrilling di­rec­tor, he was the great im­pre­sario of the age Trevor Nunn

Sir Peter Hall, who founded the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany, has died aged 86 Pho­to­graph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

From top, Peter Hall with Paul Rogers as Bot­tom and Judi Dench as Ti­ta­nia dur­ing the film­ing of A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream, 1968; a por­trait from 1993; be­fore the move to the new Na­tional The­atre in 1976

Pho­tographs: David Far­rell/ Getty; Times News­pa­pers Ltd/ Rex/Shutterstock; Jane Bown for the Guardian

Peter Brook ‘He was warm and gen­er­ous’

Main pho­to­graph: Nick Rogers/ANL/ Rex/Shutterstock

Clock­wise from left, Peter Hall out­side the new Na­tional The­atre on the South Bank, Lon­don, in 1975; with his daugh­ter Re­becca Hall, whom he di­rected in Twelfth Night at the Na­tional in 2011; at Buck­ing­ham Palace af­ter re­ceiv­ing his OBE in 1963; with his wife, Nicki Frei, at an awards cer­e­mony in 2007; an Ob­server por­trait from 1970

Elaine Paige ‘A priv­i­lege to know him’

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