Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Peter Hall

One of the many essays that appeared after Peter Hall's recent death, written by younger theatre artists he mentored,  ended with traditional words: We shall not see his like again.

Traditional, even cliched, and yet they are not only true in his case, it's hard to think of anyone in theatre since Olivier of whom these words so clearly apply.  And equally hard to think of anyone now alive to whom they could apply, at least in the same way.

His achievements were institutional and artistic.  He founded the Royal Shakespeare Company and led the National Theatre into prominence, taking it from a small company doing a half dozen plays a year at the Old Vic, to its huge new building with more than 100 actors and 500 staff producing 18 to 20 plays a year.  In the process, the National overcame general opposition to join the RSC as institutions so identified with British theatre that it seems they must have always existed.

Peter Hall was also a director who changed the way Shakespeare was performed and even spoken.  Together with John Barton (whose "Playing Shakespeare" series lives on YouTube) he found in Shakespeare verse the directions for speaking it, and playing the part.  He insisted that the director's job was to reveal the play on its own terms, not impose concepts or see the plays as opportunities for the director's self-expression.   He insisted on specifics and favored collaboration with the cast, even to the extent of involving the cast in set and costume design as well as the blocking of the play.

In the 1950s, Peter Hall introduced Samuel Beckett to England with his production of Waiting for Godot, and he was the first to direct Harold Pinter (going on to direct 10 of his plays.)  If he had done nothing else, this contribution to theatre would have been astounding.

His influence was felt in American theatre as well, as evidenced in this essay and in his New York Times obit.

Finally, these two excerpts from a kind of biographical monologue, also on YouTube.  May he rest in peace, for his legacy lives on.