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20 Questions With…Sir Peter Hall

Legendary director Sir Peter Hall, who’s currently showing off the new Rose of Kingston “In the Raw”, ponders the nature of inspired direction, musical snobbery & longevity & explains why he’s so excited about running another theatre.

By • West End


Sir Peter Hall is one of the country’s – and the world’s – most distinguished directors. Last year, he celebrated 50 years as a professional director and, to date, has directed close to 300 productions to his credit, amongst them numerous premieres of plays by Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, Alan Ayckbourn, Tennessee Williams, Simon Gray and others.

Hall made his professional debut at Windsor in 1953 before moving to London to run the Arts Theatre from 1956 to 1959, during which time his productions included the English-language premiere of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

In 1960, Hall created the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, later establishing its first London home at the West End’s Aldwych Theatre. In 1973, he moved on to the National Theatre, establishing its modern three-auditoria home on the South Bank and running it for 15 years.

In addition to straight theatre, Hall is a prolific opera director. From 1984 to 1990, he acted as artistic director of Glyndebourne Festival Opera. He has also mounted productions at many of the world’s leading opera houses, amongst them the Royal Opera House, The Metropolitan Opera, Bayreuth, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera and Geneva.

In 1988, Hall founded the Peter Hall Company which has since mounted more than 40 productions in London, New York, Europe and Australia, including residencies at the West End’s Old Vic and Piccadilly Theatres and, for the past two summers, repertory seasons at Theatre Royal Bath.

A recipient of many arts prizes - including two Tony Awards and a Laurence Olivier Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1999 - Hall was knighted in l977 for his services to British theatre.

Hall is now spearheading the development of the new Rose of Kingston, a modern theatre modelled on the groundplan of the Elizabethan Rose (See News, 17 Sep 2004). Based in Kingston-upon-Thames, southwest of London, the half-finished £11 million theatre is currently hosting an “In the Raw” season of Hall’s production of As You Like It in an effort to raise the additional £6 million needed to complete building work. The theatre is due to open full-time, with Hall as artistic director, in autumn 2005.


Date & place of birth
Born 22 November 1930 in Bury St Edmonds, Suffolk.

What made you want to become a director?
I don’t recall a particular moment. All I know is that by the time I was 14, I knew I wanted to be a director. I wasn’t absolutely sure what a director was except that he was the man that made it all happen and I wanted to make it happen. I became quite obsessed. That can sound lovely, but it isn’t necessarily because you never know whether people will let you be what you want to be.

First big break
My first break was getting into Cambridge University where I directed about seven plays and got London notices. I got straight into the profession after that.

Career highlights
Surviving? I don’t know really – it’s for other people to say what my achievements are. I’m terribly proud of what the RSC became and what we did about speaking Shakespeare, and I’m very proud of getting the National open and getting it accepted, because it was not at all accepted at first. But my chief satisfaction is simply being able to keep directing after 50 years.

Favourite actors/actresses
Oh, yes, I have favourites, too many to mention. I don’t think I would have managed to make the RSC happen unless Peggy Ashcroft had been first to sign on with the company. Where she led, others followed. Judi Dench has been an enormous friend and colleague for 40 years. I love actors. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing this job. I hate the word ‘luvvie’ and the sentimental treatment of actors if they dare to express an opinion. In my experience, actors are a very hard-working, responsible, loyal group of people.

What directors & writers do you most admire?
Most of my close close friends are directors or writers. Peter Brook has been a friend all my life. Trevor Nunn was my assistant and we remain very close. Richard Eyre is a great friend. Harold Pinter. Samuel Beckett. Tennessee Williams. All have been great friends. I’ve been lucky to have wonderful people in my life.

What makes a great director?
I don’t know. When I watch other people doing it – I’ve been privileged to watch most of the greats, from Bergman to Zeffirelli, almost A to Z – it seems something indefinable. I’ve seen not very good directors be brilliant with actors and get nothing, while good directors can be not terribly perceptive and yet get good results. It’s odd, it’s a chemical thing in a way. Of course, there’s a craft – how to move people around the stage, how to ensure the lines are heard – but these technical bits are actually quite easy and can be learned quickly. To create a situation where the actor comes to depend on you and to use you as a mirror to help him do more, that’s something else. I was terribly lucky to work with some of the great actors at a very young age. In my 20s, I worked with Peggy Ashcroft, Edith Evans, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud – you learn an awful lot from great actors and they also learn from you. As a director, you’re their editor, their friend, their guide, their psychologist, their encourager, their trainer. What you’re not is the man who tells them what to do. That’s a misconception. It must be a creative not a dictatorial relationship.

What would you advise the government – or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
I think we’d be in a sad old state without subsidised theatre. We’d be as bad as America, not very healthy at all. Any government worth its name ought to help education, quality of life and society in general by encouraging the arts. We’re talking peanuts in terms of money but it’s essential. We’re a peculiar nation. We’re very very good at the performing arts in particular, and yet we also have this puritanical side that thinks, every once in awhile, they must be stopped. This is historical. Remember, they even tried to stop Shakespeare by pulling all of the theatres down.

Last year you celebrated 50 years as a director. How do you think British theatre has changed since you started? How would you rate the current state of the West End?
Theatre has matured and become much richer, largely because of the subsidised houses. Where would we be without the Royal Court, the RSC, the National and all the regional theatres, quite apart from the Almeida, the Donmar, the Bush and all of the smaller spaces that cluster around London? This is where the creativity is happening. The economics of theatre have become so difficult. Apart from the big musicals, which have huge risks attached, the West End on the whole has to take plays that come from the subsidised sector. Commercial theatre now is musicals, it’s not plays. That said, the state of the West End is not too bad at the moment, because it’s being fed by the subsidised sector on the one hand and has the attraction of some big new musicals on the other. We’ve recently gone through a period where musicals that had run for years and years were all closing, so the West End was no longer an attractive centre. Big shows are coming back now, which is a good thing.

You’ve directed nearly 300 productions during the past five decades & you remain incredibly prolific. How do decide what to do?
I choose by gut reaction. If I read a play once and it interests me, I may very well start doing it. It can be quite dangerous to read a script over and over trying to decide if you want to do it or how you should do it. All directors are in essence play doctors, but the work itself should tell you how it wants to be done. It’s hard to describe, but I know the feeling when I get it.

How do you juggle so many projects at once?
By preparing in advance. I like to know what I’m doing. I know now what I’m doing for the next 15 months. The only thing that really scares me is lack of preparation. That’s not about having it all written down, it’s just about knowing it.

If you hadn’t become involved in theatre, what you would have done professionally?
I might have been a teacher. I like teaching, I think I have some gift for it. But I don’t know really. I’ve always been so obsessed I’ve never really thought about anything else.

Many of your children have followed you into the theatre, including your daughter Rebecca, who stars in your current production of As You Like It. How does that make you feel?
It makes me feel very proud. I’ve supported them I hope, but I wouldn’t say I encouraged them exactly. I never said, “you must do this, you must”. I didn’t tell them it’s a wonderful life because the truth is it’s a tough life. You have to be very disciplined and you have to know how to take the knocks, which will undoubtedly come, no matter who you are.

What’s the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
The Producers. I just loved something that was so politically incorrect, done with such glee and expertise. Technically, the first act was one of the best things I’ve seen in my life. I’ve never done a big musical myself because I don’t like musicals. I think most musicals patronise their audience, they are glutinously sentimental and treat us like we’re idiots. There are some I like: Guys and Dolls, Pal Joey, My Fair Lady …. Already I’m running out, there are very few a like. I’m sorry, I’m a musical snob, I can’t help it.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
What a frightening thought. I don’t know. I’m too obsessed with my own problems to take on anyone else’s.

Favourite books
I live in books. I read all the time. I’ve got quite a huge library. I look at the shelves and I wonder when I’ll read a particular title or if I’ll ever read it again. Usually I’m re-reading these days. I’m now re-reading David Copperfield, which I haven’t read for years. I’m also reading Brian Magee’s The Tristan Chord. It’s a philosophical work about Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, which I’ve agreed to do – in 2009! I wasn’t sure whether to take that one on but my wife told me, “you better say yes or they’ll think you’re scared!”

Favourite holiday destinations
I love Italy and I love Greece. I’ve worked a lot in Greece. You see, the word work is already creeping in. I’m not really a holiday person.

How did you become involved in Rose of Kingston?
I became involved because the chairman of the theatre, David Jacobs, asked if I’d become vice-president. I didn’t really want to, I didn’t want to become involved with another theatre in the greater London area. Then I looked at the plans and flipped. They had this wonderful idea of taking the ground plans for the original Rose Theatre, which was excavated about 12 years ago, and having a modern building built around it. What we have is a 1,000-seat theatre of unbelievable intimacy. You can perform everything from Pinter to Becket, Frayn, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Shakespeare – anything. It’s incredible.

Why do you think London & the South East needs another theatre?
It obviously needs another theatre because it’s the people of Kingston and the Royal Borough of Kingston backing it. I believe it could be a revolutionary theatre. It’s in the centre of a huge population of theatregoers. When I was running the National, we did some research on our audiences, which showed that 60% of them came from Kingston, Surbiton, Wimbledon and the south-west area of London. The Rose is sitting in the middle of this really ready audience. It’s also linked with Kingston University so we’ll be able to teach post-graduate actors and directors who will join the company.

Originally Rose of Kingston was due to open this year. What’s been the cause of the delay? What needs to happen now to ensure it does open?
The Borough of Kingston have built the shell of the building – and spent £5 million so far – and we can already do plays in it. We’re doing As You Like It now. But the building is not finished. The foyers, bars, the studio in the roof still need doing, plus all the things that licensing authorities care about, like heating and air-conditioning, and it’s still not equipped with a lighting switchboard. To get all of that done, we need another £6 million. So we’re busily going round with a begging bowl trying to find it.

What can you tell us about your first planned season at Kingston?
We hope to open fully in a year’s time. But until we know an exact date, I can’t go to actors and say “perhaps”. I want to run a repertory of six to eight plays at once so we have a real spectrum of different kinds of drama.

What about your next season in Bath? What are your other plans for the future?
I can’t tell you specifics yet about the Bath season. Much like in the other two years, which have been very successful, there will be four plays and I’ll direct two of them. Coming up, I’m directing the opening production at Glyndebourne, Whose Life Is It Anyway? in the West End with Kim Cattrall, then the two plays at Bath, a new play in the West End, the opera The Midsummer Marriage in Chicago, then it’s next Christmas. In January 2006, I’ll do a play in the West End with an eminent dame, but no, I can’t tell you who or what just yet.

As for Rose of Kingston, it will be wonderful if it all happens. I’m keeping busy with other projects in case it’s delayed again, but I’m devoting a lot of time to Kingston already in anticipation. When it does happen, I want to stop the freelance productions and just be at Kingston full-time, aside from the odd opera because I can’t live without that.

Do you ever contemplate retirement?
Sooner or later, I shall be pushed over I suppose, but I hope I don’t ever have to stop doing what I love. I would like to finally fall down dead in the middle of a rehearsal. Maybe at Kingston.

- Sir Peter Hall was speaking to Terri Paddock


As You Like It continues at Rose of Kingston until 18 December 2005. For further information on the new theatre, visit the theatre website.


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