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Peter Hall obituary

Peter Hall – theatre, film and opera director

Born November 22 1930; died September 11 2017

Without Peter Hall, who has died aged 86, the theatre world would be a very different place. Not only did Hall direct the first English language production of Samuel Beckett's era defining play, Waiting For Godot, when he was only twenty-four. Before he was thirty he had founded the Royal Shakespeare Company, and would go on to take over from Laurence Olivier at the helm of the National Theatre, overseeing the company's turbulent move to purpose built premises on London's South Bank. For the next half century Hall moved from precocious young mover and shaker to elder statesman, be it at Glyndebourne, where he oversaw numerous world class productions, or latterly with his own Peter Hall Company. He returned to the National for the last time in 2011 to celebrate his 80th birthday with a production of Twelfth Night. His daughter Rebecca played Viola.

Bearded, leather jacketed and polo-necked, Hall looked the epitome of post-war artistic society. The image was heightened during a stint as presenter of 1970s TV arts magazine programme, Aquarius. There was a deep-rooted seriousness in everything Hall, did, however, which, beyond the twinkly-eyed sense of mischief, could be ferociously tenacious. This was seen both when he took on the unions as the delays in building Denys Lasdun's new National Theatre grew ever longer, and when he resigned from his position on what was then the Arts Council of Great Britain in protest at the government cutting the arts funding he believed in with a passion.

Hall may have changed the theatrical landscape, but those changes were always within the bricks and mortar of the institutions he led, and he was never radical in a counter-cultural way. One of his greatest early acts of largesse at the National, however, was to allow director Ken Campbell and his Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool to open the Cottesloe space with their twelve hour staging of Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's hippy sci-fi conspiracy trilogy, Illuminatus! after seeing it in the Liverpool arts lab where it opened. This opened up the theatre to a very different kind of audience, even as Hall epitomised a period in English theatre whereby the doors of the institutions were opening up, and the young turks of yore were growing up in public to define a new and very different kind of theatrical establishment.

Peter Hall was born in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, as the only child of Grace and Reginald, a station-master. With the family having moved to Cambridge, Hall won a scholarship to the Perse School, where he played Hamlet and became head boy. A further scholarship to read English at St Catharine's College, Cambridge followed national service, by which time he was already in love with theatre. He staged his first professional production, W Somerset Maugham's The Letter, in 1953. After graduating he ran Oxford Playhouse, and became assistant director at the Arts Theatre London, which he suddenly found himself running aged twenty-four. Hall was already making his mark before his production of Waiting For Godot changed everything, both for Beckett and himself.

Hall launched his career on the West End and Broadway, directing the London premieres of Tennessee Williams' Camino Real (1957) and Cat on A Hot Tin Roof (1958). and took over at Stratford, which eventually led to the formal founding of the RSC in 1961. Hall directed The Wars of the Roses, John Barton's epic conflation of Shakespeare's history plays, but also brought in contemporary playwrights, staging the premiere of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming (1965). Exhausted, Hall left the RSC in 1968, passing the baton to Trevor Nunn.

Inbetween the RSC and the National, Hall directed opera and films. While the former productions saw him internationally renowned, the latter had little to distinguish them. Only The Camomile Lawn, the 1992 TV adaptation of Mary Wesley's novel, stood out.

Hall eventually took over as artistic director of the National as the company prepared to move out of the Old Vic. Hall arrived in 1973, during a time of political and industrial unrest, and opened each of the theatre's three auditoriums one by one as the others were being built.

Hall directed thirty-three productions for the NT until his departure in 1988. These included the world premiers of Harold Pinter's No Man's Land (1975), with Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud, and Betrayal (1978), Peter Shaffer's Amadeus (1979) with Paul Scofield and Simon Callow, Alan Ayckbourn's Bedroom Farce, and Tony Harrison's version of The Oresteia (1981) featuring a score by Harrison Birtwistle. Hall later directed his own version of Animal Farm (in 1984, no less) and Antony and Cleopatra (1987) with Judi Dench and Anthony Hopkins.

After the NT, Hall launched the Peter Hall company, which produced more than sixty plays, often alongside commercial producers and with starry casts, including Vanessa Redgrave in Orpheus Descending and Dustin Hoffman in The Merchant of Venice. Rehearsals for the latter were filmed for an edition of Sunday night arts TV show, The South Bank Show. In 2003, Hall began a ten year tenure overseeing an annual summer season at the Theatre Royal, Bath, the same year he became founding director of the Rose Theatre, Kingston, where he directed Judi Dench in A Midsummer Night's Dream (2010).

Hall married four times, first to actress Leslie Caron, who he met while directing her in Gigi. Hall then married his one-time assistant Jacqueline Taylor and then opera singer Maria Ewing. He found stability with his fourth wife, Nicki Frei, from 1990 onwards. He went on to work with all six of his children as performers, directors and producers. Hall won numerous awards, including a CBE in 1963, while he was knighted in 1977.

Out of his mountain of achievements, for Hall at least, some stood out more than others.

“On my gravestone I want: 'Created the Royal Shakespeare Company'”, he said once in an interview, adding that “You can then put a footnote: 'He opened the South Bank.'” Both of these and many other things besides changed the fabric of British cultural life forever.

Hall is survived by his wife, Nicki Frei, and his six children, Christopher, Jennifer, Edward, Lucy, Rebecca and Emma.

The Herald, September 13th 2017

ends

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