Obituary

Peter Hall shaped an era of British theatre

Peter Hall at the National Theatre in central London in 2001.
Peter Hall at the National Theatre in central London in 2001. PHOTO: REUTERS

The director, who created the Royal Shakespeare Company, exerted a strong influence on theatre in the English-speaking world for more than 50 years

LONDON • While directing the small Arts Theatre in London at the age of only 24, Peter Hall read Waiting For Godot during the slow summer season of 1955.

“I thought it was terribly funny and well written and had a marvellous rhythm to it,” he told The Guardian in 2005. “But I didn’t say to myself, ‘This is the epoch-changing play of the mid-century.’ I simply thought, ‘What a wonderful thing to do in a slack August.’”

The experimental play, written in French and then translated into English by an obscure Irish writer named Samuel Beckett, provoked controversy in London. But its theme of existential alienation, delivered by two down-and-out characters waiting for a person who never arrives, caught the spirit of the age. When it opened on Aug 3, 1955, it established Beckett as a major playwright and Hall as the most enterprising of a young generation of directors.

Hall, who created the Royal Shakespeare Company, oversaw the National Theatre’s move to the south bank of the Thames and exerted a commanding influence on theatre in the English-speaking world for well over 50 years, died on Monday in London. He was 86.

His death, at University College Hospital, was announced by the National Theatre, which said the cause was pneumonia.

While still in his 20s, he directed acclaimed actors such as Laurence Olivier, Peggy Ashcroft and Charles Laughton in Shakespearean plays in the Bard’s home town of Stratford- upon-Avon.

At 29, he moved beyond the seasonal production in Stratford to launch the year-round Royal Shakespeare Company in London, with a permanent group of actors performing classical and modern plays.

  • Five shows that sealed Hall's stage legacy

    WAITING FOR GODOT (1955)

    To 24-year-old Peter Hall fell the task of introducing London audiences to what is widely regarded as the most important play of the 20th century. His production of Samuel Beckett's tale of two existentially challenged tramps, at the Arts Theatre, may have left some scratching their heads in anger and exasperation. But the reputation-making critic Kenneth Tynan wrote: "It forced me to re-examine the rules which have hitherto governed the drama; and having done so, to pronounce them not elastic enough."

    Hall, he continued, had "a marvellous ear for its elusive rhythms" and the young director was suddenly propelled into a stratosphere occupied by the likes of English director Peter Brook.

    THE HOMECOMING (1965) 

    As the founding director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Hall engaged with far more than the classics of the canon. His world premiere for the company of playwright Harold Pinter's creepy masterpiece of familial dysfunction generated as much debate as his Godot had. As with Beckett, Hall was sensitive to every word - and, equally important, pause - in the script and, according to Pinter's biographer Michael Billington, "once held a dot-and-pause rehearsal to mark the precise musical notations in Pinter's text". 

    AMADEUS (1979)

    Playwright Peter Shaffer's haunted portrait of the rivalry between a musical genius (Mozart) and a genius manque (Salieri) allowed Hall, now the head of the Royal National Theatre, to display his showman's instinct for large, well-populated canvases, Rococo flourishes and ripe acting that stopped just short of melodrama.

    He guided two sets of illustrious actors to benchmark performances in the leading adversarial roles: Paul Scofield (as Salieri) and Simon Callow (as Mozart) in London, and Ian McKellen (who won a Tony for his Salieri) and Tim Curry (as Mozart) on Broadway in 1980. 

    ORPHEUS DESCENDING (1988) 

    For the debut of his new independent commercial venture, the Peter Hall Company, Hall chose a florid Tennessee Williams drama that had never received much love from critics.

    But his Orpheus did much for the play and for its author's reputation at a time when Williams was out of fashion. His leading lady, Vanessa Redgrave, was brave, pathetic and finally transcendent in the role of Lady, the love-starved Italian wife of a Southern bigot.

    AS YOU LIKE IT (2003) 

    This was, surprisingly, Hall's first interpretation of one of the canon's most beloved comedies. Now in his mid-70s, he brought a touch of frost to Shakespeare's sylvan Forest of Arden, summoning the hard-times atmosphere of the Great Depression. For the play's cross-dressing heroine, Rosalind, he chose his daughter, Rebecca, whom he had triumphantly introduced to the West End with his 2002 production of George Bernard Shaw's Mrs Warren's Profession.

    His As You Like It proved to be the perfect firmament for his daughter's rising star.

    NYTIMES

Later, as managing director of the Royal National Theatre from 1973 to 1988 (succeeding Olivier), he advanced the notion that theatre deserved government subsidies as a central pillar of the country’s cultural identity.

In 1976, Newsweek theatre critic Jack Kroll described Hall as “the most powerful cultural figure in a country whose culture is perhaps its only real remaining power”. In 1977, Hall was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

Many of the world’s finest actors appeared in his productions, including Vanessa Redgrave, Peter O’Toole, Christopher Plummer, John Gielgud, Anthony Hopkins and Judi Dench, helping make London among the world’s pre-eminent theatrical destinations.

Hall was a skilled pianist and directed more than 30 operas in his career and, for six years, was artistic director of Britain’s Glyndebourne Festival Opera. In 1983, he directed Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle in Bayreuth, Germany, on the 100th anniversary of Wagner’s death.

Some of Hall’s efforts in opera courted controversy or were critical disasters. A 1982 production of Verdi’s Macbeth at the Metropolitan Opera was derided for its overthe- top effects, including witches riding on brooms. In 1986, he had his wife at the time, singer Maria Ewing, completely disrobe while performing Dance Of The Seven Veils in Richard Strauss’ Salome.

Hall was not known for a signature directing style. His concern as a director was always for the rhythm of the language and the truth behind the words. He regarded himself as “a musical director of plays”. As he put it: “You learn the notes, you learn the steps, you learn the shapes and then one has to make it one’s own and act it.”

Peter Reginald Frederick Hall was born into a working-class East Anglian family on Nov 22, 1930, in Bury St Edmunds. His paternal grandfather had worked as a rat catcher on Queen Victoria’s Norfolk estate.

Hall remembered his mother as “hugely ambitious” and in “a state of permanent fury” at his father, a railroad stationmaster with “a sunny, controlled temperament and no ambition at all”.

His parents made financial sacrifices to give their only child the education that they had never had. “They encouraged me to be different and escape,” Hall said in a 1993 interview, “and from the age of eight, I was conscious that I was different and would escape.”

The family moved to Cambridge when he was about 10 and he often used his family’s railroad discount to take the train to London to attend the theatre.

By 14, he knew he wanted to be a Shakespearean director. He received a scholarship to the University of Cambridge and staged a number of well-received student productions that drew national critics to the campus. “I discovered at last that I could direct,” he wrote in his 1993 autobiography, Making An Exhibition Of Myself. “My relief was acute and produced tears.”

In 1956, he was directing a British stage production of Gigi, based on a novella by Colette, starring Frenchborn movie star Leslie Caron. They married that year and had two children. She later wrote that she was drawn to his charisma and ambition, but the marriage became strained by his bouts of severe depression and his demands that she give up her career. The marriage ended in divorce, cemented by her affair with actor Warren Beatty.

Hall’s next two marriages, to Royal Shakespeare Company press officer Jacqueline Taylor and Ewing, also ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife since 1990, Ms Nicki Frei, a former press officer for the National Theatre; two children from his first marriage, Christopher Hall and Jennifer Hall; two children from his second marriage, theatrical director Edward Hall and Lucy Hall; a daughter from his third marriage, actress Rebecca Hall; a daughter from his fourth marriage, Emma Hall; and nine grandchildren.

After leaving the National Theatre in 1988, he launched his own theatrical group, the Peter Hall Company. His final production was in 2011, with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at the National Theatre, with his daughter Rebecca in the starring role of Viola. The same year, he received a diagnosis of dementia.

For Hall, the true striving occurred in rehearsals. They were a voyage into the unexplored and unexpected, as he put it, with himself as “guide, philosopher, friend, conspirator, psychiatrist, actor, scholar, musician, editor, guru, politician and lover”.

“My definition of paradise,” he wrote, “is to be always rehearsing. A Shakespeare play followed by a Mozart opera.”

NYTIMES, WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2017, with the headline 'Peter Hall shaped an era of British theatre'. Print Edition | Subscribe