‘He left British theatre infinitely richer than he found it’
Sir Peter Hall 1930-2017
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’