Theatre in Wales

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Peter Hall: the Tributes That Cannot Be Read for Free

In Memory

Peter Hall , Theatre and Opera , September 23, 2017
In Memory by Peter Hall The best things in life are free. That is true. Camaraderie, fidelity, resolution and so much else are there for the taking although they need working on. But it is not true for writing. The work of Peter Hall is so gargantuan that no one obituary can grab it all. Some of the best words on the legacy, and its implications, are not to be had at the end of a free click or two. Richard Eyre wrote a long considered piece for Times Newspapers' print edition 17th September.

Corporate greatness requires continuity. “Hall had a messianic determination to follow the model of the great European companies” Eyre wrote. “I was clear from the outset that I could contribute little unless I could develop a company with a strong permanent nucleus.” Actors were recruited on three-year contracts...The company wasn't driven by an aesthetic vision or ideological dogma...If there was an intellectual framework that lay behind the company, it was derived from Cambridge University, from where...Hall brought an approach to literature dependent on close textual analysis and moral purpose.”

The best of Britain's obituaries are not in an obvious place. Those that feature in the Economist are poetic, informal and acute. The authors are anonymous but their knowledge is prodigious. The journal's obituarist part-saw Peter Hall as follows:

“When he was preparing a Shakespeare play—always with love and awe, though it might be for the 20th time—Peter Hall would mutter it to himself in Elizabethan. It sounded like a cross between Devon and Belfast, but it revealed the colours and made the words wittier...The job of a director was therefore highly risky. Though he always knew what he wanted to do—as firmly as he knew, after seeing “Love’s Labours Lost” at 16, that he had to be the man who made the magic on that stage—he was still scared to death that he might not pull it off. Those who saw the blood-soaked violence of “The Wars of the Roses” in 1963, his daring masked “Oresteia” of 1981, or the bravery of his English-language premiere of “Waiting for Godot” in 1955, at 25, imagined him brimming with confidence, even arrogance. Yet behind the loud affability, the flights on Concorde, the Jaguars and Rolls Royces and the glamorous wives, was a stationmaster’s son from Suffolk.

“...In this maelstrom, he clung to his core beliefs. If fashion failed to follow him, he didn’t care. Shakespeare’s iambic pentameters were sacred, precise as a page of music, never to be broken mid-line, even at a full stop. The rhythm of action and inaction in Samuel Beckett’s plays, and the pauses and silences in Harold Pinter’s (12 of whose works he premiered, from “The Homecoming” onwards) had to be rigorously observed. His reverence for text induced Tennessee Williams, among others, to send him their plays unasked.

“Next, he needed settled players. Rather than assembling a cast from scratch for each production, he insisted when he founded the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960 that the 30-40 actors should be on three-year contracts. They would work together over the long term like a tribe, learning from each other as much as from him. (Autocracy was not his style. His style was “Let’s find out.”) He tried to do the same at the National when he took over in 1973; times were more troubled then. But when everyone in a company was inspired together, he felt ecstatic. The RSC in the mid-1960s—personified by David Warner’s gangling dreamy-student Hamlet, and underpinned by subsidy—was “hot” in a way British theatre has never been since.

“...His switch from the RSC to the National...he was now plunged deep into political rows over whether the National’s repertoire was too left-wing or too elitist, over censorship and, continually, over public funding. He found himself hotly defending not only the cost of the new buildings, but also theatre itself—and whether, in a recession, it should be subsidised at all. No question, he shot back. Theatre was society’s sharpest way to observe itself and provoke authority. It was awkward. It was dangerous. So it was often not commercial, and needed help. Sometimes, too, its sheer beauty made it necessary to a civilised society.

"This was the spirit in which, from 1984 to 1990, he was artistic director of Glyndebourne Festival Opera—pumping too much adrenalin, as usual, in an even more elitist enterprise than spoken theatre. He homed in on Mozart, whom he had loved a little earlier than Shakespeare, banging out his sonatas on the piano at the age of nine. Though he had great success with other composers (a ravishing production of Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, a startlingly sexy rendition of Strauss’s “Salome”), he was there for “Così” and “Figaro”, as many times as anyone wanted. He stayed close for 35 years.

“Recounting his life, he tended to mention Mozart and Shakespeare in the same breath. For many privileged years, he lived inside their heads. The frustrations of Whitehall and Westminster, the backstage bitching, onslaughts by the critics, his miserable divorces, all occurred against that background of genius: a sublime regularity of form in words or music which, even when criss-crossed by anguished irregularities, still held each work in shape. His job, on every possible stage, with every ounce of energy, was to make it heard.”

Edited from the full obituary in the Economist print edition 23rd September.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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