‘Theatre makes people more intelligent than they are individually’: celebrating Peter Hall

Sir Peter Hall, who has died at the age of 86, held a truly special place at the heart of our cultural landscape: among his many achievements were founding the Royal Shakespeare Company, serving as Director of the National Theatre, and directing the English-language premiere of Waiting for Godot.

To celebrate his extraordinary life, here’s an extract from an interview with him, conducted by Richard Eyre for his book Talking Theatre.

RICHARD EYRE: What makes theatre so special?

PETER HALL: It’s the only art form in which a group of people meet together in order to play a game of imagination with the actor, who invites them to imagine things, and that union makes them more intelligent than they are individually. Collectively they’re sharper, they’re more alive. The experience is more incandescent than if they were reading a book or a poem or listening to a piece of music by themselves. The desire to imagine something which isn’t there is stronger in the theatre than in any other media. If we go and stand on the stage, which is a completely bare black box, and we speak with some clarity a piece of Julius Caesar, if we’re any good at all, the audience will believe it’s Rome. They’ll say: yes, those two guys are in Rome. If we bring a camera into the auditorium and film the two of us doing exactly the same thing in the same circumstances and we then show that piece of film, the audience will say: well, that’s not Rome, that’s a black void in a black box—where’s Rome? In other words their imagination is not stimulated by any visual imagery, which after all is the basis and strength and extraordinariness of film. I think what’s really been interesting about the theatre in the last fifty years is that the increased visual media and, in a sense, the increased literalness of our age has freed the theatre to be more imaginative.

Or to try to be as imaginative as Shakespeare?

The theatre’s strength comes out of its limitations to some extent. Shakespeare initially played in daylight: it’s much more eloquent because it’s imaginative for Lady Macbeth to come on with a candle in daylight and say the night is black, than actually for us to walk onto a modern stage where we can create blackness and yet we can’t see. And then we can’t hear her telling us about the nature of blackness and of evil. Shakespeare was there in daylight in a large space with two or three thousand people with a permanent stage which could become anything or anywhere he wanted it to become. Or nowhere if he didn’t want to tell us where it was. One of the problems with doing Shakespeare today is that we think it has to be somewhere. Why did Shakespeare happen? It’s the—it’s the genetic pack of cards. Genius makes its own rules. Shakespeare inherited a very formal method of writing with the iambic pentameter and broke all the rules, and therefore made it sound human and flexible and extraordinary.

Do you think it’s a marvellous piece of luck to have had Shakespeare as our theatrical DNA or is it a burden?

Some people take the view that Shakespeare is a dead weight, a kind of albatross round the neck of the British theatre. I don’t believe that’s true. Strangely enough, unlike the French classicists, he’s entirely questing and revolutionary. He questions form all the time, whether it be the form of his own blank verse line or whether it be the form of the play. Whatever it be he’s writing about, his historical sense changes and develops. Everything is questioned. But it’s a sobering thought that in two or three hundred years we shan’t understand Shakespeare because the language is now changing at an accelerating rate, and Shakespeare will be like Chaucer: he’ll need to be modernised.

Peter Hall on the set of his film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1968), with Paul Rogers and Judi Dench

What were you trying to achieve when you started the RSC?

Stratford had a renaissance immediately after the war. It seemed to come at the same moment: the beginning of subsidising the arts, the coming of the Third Programme, the new Education Act, our post-war hopes. And there was a huge boom in Shakespeare. Barry Jackson, who ran Birmingham Rep, took over Stratford and made it a rather glittering and glamorous place. He got the great stars to come. He got Diana Wynyard, he got the young Paul Scofield, he got the young Peter Brook. And he also built an infrastructure of rehearsal rooms and workshops which actually took the theatre seriously for the first time. I mean, there’d been a theatre at Stratford since the late nineteenth century, though it had burnt down in 1931 and the new Art Deco, rather cinema-like building went up, which wasn’t very easy to play in. That was the main problem that Barry Jackson had and then Tony Quayle had and then Glen Byam Shaw had. But they actually put Stratford on the map. Suddenly Shakespeare was hot. I went there first in 1956, when I was twenty-five, to direct a play, and I directed a play each year from then on. The season ran from March until October: it was a star-led company. There were always two or three really big West End stars. And there were a lot of young actors who would do one, two or three years there gradually coming up through the ranks. Some of them became stars in their own right, like Dorothy Tutin, Geraldine McEwan and people like that.

In 1958 Glen Byam Shaw said he was going to retire, so he asked me if I would be interested in taking over. I was twenty-seven. My ambition as a young man had been to do Shakespeare, which is why I did what I did and why I went to Cambridge and why I followed the path that I tried to follow. Even more shamingly, I suppose—because it’s like Harold Wilson standing outside the door of Number Ten—I wanted to run Stratford. So it was an extraordinary moment for a twenty-seven-year-old man. I can’t imagine how I had the nerve to do it looking back, but I said: I don’t want to run a Shakespeare Festival from March until October; I don’t want to be a runner of an ad-hoc festival; I want to try and make an ensemble; I want to give the actors three-year contracts, I want us all to speak Shakespeare in the same way, I want us all to approach Shakespeare in the same way. So therefore I want a team of directors and a team of designers and most of all I want to do modern plays and other classics as well as Shakespeare. Because I believe a classical company that is not alive to the present has absolutely no prospect of making the past live. Therefore I want a London theatre because I want it to be a year-round operation. The idea was that a company, a family, would achieve more than an ad-hoc group. The chairman of the theatre’s board, Sir Fordham Flower—of the Flowers brewers who had been the patrons and the starters and the supporters of Stratford from the previous century—was terribly interested in all this, but he was an arch-diplomat and extremely clever. He said: ‘I think this is all very good, but I don’t know whether it’ll get through. We’ve got a hundred and seventy-five thousand pounds in the bank, which is savings from our Australian and American tours from the past, but those are our total resources.’ And I said to him: ‘There is a political reason why you’ve got to do this: within the next five or six years the National Theatre will come, and if the National Theatre comes, Stratford will become a very provincial repertory stuck out in the country, visited only by tourists.’ And he said: ‘Well, we can’t have two national theatres.’ And I said, for the first time, and I’ve gone on saying it all my life: ‘We must have two theatres.’ I think the fact that France had the Théâtre National Populaire of Vilar, as well as the Comédie Française, gave some hope for young actors and young writers and for the future. That artistic competition is absolutely essential. So I said there must be two national theatres and we must be the first.

Peter Hall in 1958, the year he pitched the idea for what would become the RSC

Anyway, to cut a long story short, the board was very, very hostile to it, particularly Binkie Beaumont, who was the doyen of West End theatres and a great manager and a great producer. He took me out to lunch and he said: ‘If you do this, you will ruin the West End theatre. Once an actor is allowed to play less than eight times a week, he will never want to play eight times a week.’ And I said: ‘Well, he shouldn’t play eight times a week; that’s nineteenth century and dreadful.’ And he said: ‘All the playwrights will give you plays because you’ll be able to nurse them in repertory, and they won’t be instant flops or successes, and you will ruin the commercial theatre, and I’m not having it. If you succeed in getting this, I will resign.’ And I said: ‘That’s fine.’ He was a friend, I’d worked with him and I’d work with him again. And he said: ‘I will resign, and I will resign quietly and without fuss or without bother, but I will go.’ Ultimately he did.

Anyway, the Stratford company went to Russia in November, December 1958. I was director designate at that time and a rather worried director designate because I wasn’t sure whether what I wanted was going to happen. And I wasn’t therefore sure whether I was actually going to take the job, although I already had it. In Leningrad—as it was then, now again St Petersburg—in one of those vast Edwardian hotels, Fordy Flower sat up all one night with me and said: ‘Now let’s get to the bottom of this: tell me the whole thing again.’ And I went over it all in painful detail until about four in the morning over several quantities of drink. And at the end of it Fordy said to me: ‘You are absolutely mad, but I think you’ve got something. I will back you, and here’s my hand: through thick and thin I will back you.’ And he did. The board practically resigned but didn’t. Then it started to be a success. It wasn’t an instant success; it took two years before we became internationally famous. Then everybody said: oh, how wonderful. But looking back on it, the interesting thing to me is that it is absolutely inconceivable that such a thing could happen now. This is not an old man being nostalgic. I mean, now there would have to be money from the Lottery, and there would have to be a feasibility study, and the feasibility study would certainly say we don’t need to do this, we don’t need any more classical theatre in London, and this shouldn’t happen.

You did Godot in ’55. Nothing was known about Beckett in this country. What was the response?

I was running the Arts Theatre in Great Newport Street. I was twenty-four, and I was in the middle of dress-rehearsing Mourning Becomes Electra, which I’d always wanted to direct. I went into my little cupboard office and found a script which said ‘Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett’, and a letter from Donald Albery, who was a West End impresario. It said: ‘I don’t know whether you know this play: it’s on in Paris in a seventy-five-seat theatre, and it’s been on for some time; it’s very highly regarded. No one will do it in the West End, no director will touch it, and every actor has turned it down. I’ve seen some of your work at the Arts Theatre, and I liked it, so I wonder whether you’d like to do it.’ So with a sense that I was certainly at the end of the queue, I looked at it. I’d vaguely heard of Beckett; I hadn’t read a word of him; I hadn’t seen the play in Paris, but I’d heard of it. And I read it. I won’t say that I said to myself: this is the major play of the mid-century and it’s a turning point in drama, but I did find it startlingly original. First of all that it turned waiting into something dramatic. Second, that waiting became a metaphor for living. What are we actually living for, what are we waiting for, will something come, will Godot come, will something come to explain why we’re here and what we’re doing. And I found it terribly funny, and I also found it genuine, poetic drama. We’d just lived through the time of T.S. Eliot and the time of Christopher Fry and the time of W.H. Auden, where poetic drama—which was usually done in tiny theatres in Notting Hill Gate—was trying to put poetry back into theatre by sticking it onto ordinary dialogue like sequins. It was very false and very artificial. And here was somebody who had an extraordinary ear, an extraordinary rhythm for writing, which was both clear and eloquent and full of character and very funny. Of course I knew it was Irish: that’s very important, because you know out of O’Casey comes Beckett. No question. No question. Out of Joyce comes Beckett, no question. But it was an individual voice, and I thought: well, what have we got to lose, let’s do it. So I went off on holiday leaving Mourning Becomes Electra running, armed with all the volumes of Proust which I’d never read. I was a very serious-minded youth.

Translation from the French?

Oh, translated; no, no, not in French, alas. And I settled down on the beach to read all these, and I think I got to volume eight or nine and a telegram arrived saying: ‘Mourning Electra failing return at once for Godot.’ Which I did, and I’ve never finished Proust which seems to me an eloquent moral to the whole tale and I did Godot. Very hard to cast it, nobody wanted to do it: they all thought it was mad, they all thought it made no sense. I could never understand why people didn’t understand what was going on, what was happening, but they didn’t. We ended up with a cast of Peter Woodthorpe, Paul Daneman, Peter Bull and Timothy Bateson, and in a hot summer we started rehearsing it. Peter Bull practically died as Pozzo carrying all those bags and whips. Gradually the cast began to understand it and began to feel it. I have to say I felt from the very beginning terribly comfortable in the rhythms. I didn’t know whether I was doing the right thing, but I had that wonderful feeling that a director can have when he’s happy: that there’s only one thing to do and that’s what you do. So you don’t say to yourself: what ought I to do? I felt completely at ease. The play opened in late August or September 1955. The first night was full of cheers and counter cheers. When Estragon said: ‘Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful,’ an English voice said: ‘Hear, hear!’ There was a good deal of that going on, and audible sighs and yawns, and at the end there were cheers and boos. My new agent, who was terribly grand, met me backstage pink with rage and said: ‘Everything is just beginning for you as a director, you’ve got a West End play, you’re going on Broadway and then you go and do a thing like this.’

The 1955 English language premiere of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, directed by Peter Hall

So people were shocked?

They were absolutely baffled, a lot of them. But half the people said: this is it, this is what we’ve been waiting for. And the press reaction was equally divided. Philip Hope-Wallace in the Guardian said: ‘This is the sort of thing that we saw in basements in the twenties in Berlin, and it really won’t do.’ And there was quite a lot of patronising and joke-making, because it was an easy target. I was very dubious after the daily press whether it would run. The owner of the Arts called me the day after it opened and said: I don’t think we can keep this on. I said: just wait for the Sundays, please. I’d sent a copy of Watt [Samuel Beckett’s novel] to Harold Hobson [drama critic of the Sunday Times] just saying: this might interest you as background to the play. And he had a complete Pauline conversion to Beckett. And he went on writing about it for the next six weeks. Tynan [in the Observer] was enthusiastic but less so than Hobson, though he became very enthusiastic as the Godot bandwagon rolled. And it did roll. It’s extraordinary now to think of—we were more one nation then. We didn’t have so much press, we didn’t have so many television channels, we didn’t have so many radio channels. But it was everywhere. There were cartoons about Godot. I was on Panorama interviewed about what was the meaning of it, was it the Cold War? It went on, on and on and on and on, and it ran for over a year. It really got me started, it got me to Stratford. Because of that I met Leslie Caron, who became my first wife and I directed her. Tennessee Williams gave me his plays to direct in London. It completely transformed my life. On the level of what it brought to theatre, I think it nailed the colours again to the old mast of theatre: that theatre is a place of imagination and of metaphor and of contradiction. It’s the Shakespearean mast to me. It also says that there is no active theatre without the tension between the form of the writing, the form of the creation, and the emotion that the actor is trying to express. Whether it’s Shakespeare’s iambic pentameters or whether it’s Beckett’s very precise, beautiful cadenced prose, it has a rhythm and an actuality.


This interview is taken from Talking Theatre: Interviews with Theatre People by Richard Eyre.

Nick Hern Books is saddened to hear of the passing of Peter Hall. Everyone associated with British theatre today owes an enormous debt to his extraordinary, influential career.

We’re proud to be the publishers of Peter Hall’s book, The Necessary Theatre, in which he makes an impassioned argument for public funding of the arts, and theatre in particular.

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