In his Guardian obituary of 12 September, Michael Billington suggests that Sir Peter Hall, who has died at the age of 86, was ‘the single most influential figure in modern British theatre.’ As well as leading the RSC and then the National Theatre through the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, Hall was a formidable artistic director for six years at Glyndebourne in the ’80s, also directing opera at the Royal Opera, the Met, Bayreuth and elsewhere.
Peter Hall, much influenced by Artaud and Brecht, was also just as much in the forefront of modernity, his pioneering productions of works by Ionesco, Beckett (Waiting for Godot 1955), Pinter and Peter Shaffer adding much richness -and relevance- to the contemporary scene.
In the past week, writers have and will continue to add to the flood of Peter Hall tributes – I do not need to reiterate the director’s many astounding achievements but will content myself with a few personal observations and comments as to why -for me- Hall remains foremost in the theatrical compartment of my mind.
Hall’s productions shied away from the directorial spotlight and positively refused to sensationalise. He was quite capable of exploring contemporary political events and linking them with -for example- their Shakespearean equivalents. No modern battle-fatigues, mobile ‘phones or on-stage computers for him; Hall allowed his audiences to make modern connections themselves as, when and how they realised them. The 1963-4 RSC The Wars of the Roses -co-directed and adapted with the eminent John Barton, and developed to later include the earlier Histories- is a case in point. The trilogy was as much about post-war, Cold War events, including Vietnam and the assassination of Kennedy as about the Middle Ages. The 1966 television adaptation, now happily restored on DVD, bears this out. Hall’s production -both the original and studio- also deeply explores and humanises individual characters and relationships. For the first time I actually understood the attraction between Queen Margaret and Suffolk, or that for Richard Gloucester by Lady Anne, or the burning hatred between Margaret and the Duke of York. Wonderful individual performances in the cycle by actors including Peggy Ashcroft, Donald Sinden, Ian Holm, Roy Dotrice, David Warner and Janet Suzman -I could go on- are eclipsed by the sheer ensemble playing-out of the relationships – all guided, of course, by the director.
The clarification of relationships was characteristic of so much of Hall’s work. Never have I seen such theatrical exploration and development of a royal family as in Hall’s third production of Hamlet with his own company in 1994. I saw that production twice: once on tour at Chichester and again thirteen weeks later at the Gielgud Theatre in London, where those relationships had stretched and deepened beyond recognition; almost unbearably. In Bizet’s Carmen, I have never experienced the degree of depth and anguish between Carmen and Don Jose as at Glyndebourne in 1985. Nor have I been so disturbed by the torturous daily goings-on within the disfunctional family of Pinter’s The Homecoming as directed by Hall, appropriately described by Vincent Canby of the New York Times as a ‘rabid comedy’. ‘Comedy’- I’m not sure, despite amusing scenes…but ‘rabid’ is spot-on for what Pinter, Hall and the company achieved together, first on stage in 1965 then on screen in 1973.
I once actually met Peter Hall. I was about 13 years old, on a school trip to Stratford in 1965 or ’66, seeing Hall’s Henry V in the afternoon (Ian Holm as the King) and Hamlet in the evening (with David Warner – and a young Patrick Stewart was the Player King)…quite a day! After the matinee, I decided to go for a walk along the river before joining my fellow-schoolmates for fish-and-chips. Although I had been (sort of) reading Shakespeare since I was ten, I think I needed to absorb what had actual been my very first theatre experience of the playwright. As I wandered past the Stage Door…Peter Hall emerged. Yes, really. I knew who he was from photos in the programme – and I think I just stared and went red. He stood there, grinned and said “Have you been to Henry V?” Speechless, I nodded. “Did you like it?” he asked amiably. I nodded. “Good – are you here for Hamlet as well?”…I nodded. “Good” -his grin was becoming a bit forced at my overwhelming enthusiasm and eloquence. “So you like Shakespeare?” At last I could speak: “Yes, sir, Mr. Hall. Rather – and I thought your production this afternoon was super!” I sounded like a character out of Jennings or Billy Bunter…but that’s what a public-schoolboy sounded like in those days. Peter Hall’s grin became more relaxed again and he patted me on the shoulder. “Good for you, my boy. Well done. Keep coming to see Shakespeare whenever you can.” He sauntered off…and I did ‘keep coming’.
The Telegraph obituary describes Hall as ‘a crusading titan of post-war British theatre, without whose presence the nation’s cultural life would be immeasurably the poorer.’ Peter Hall gave many years and many, many wonderful productions to the theatre; we should be profoundly grateful – I often think back to that Stratford visit over 50 years ago…and I know I am.
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