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. American, he thought, might be just the accent for it. But in his decades as the dominant figure in British theatre, his most famous hire from Hollywood was a disaster: the venerable Charles Laughton, as Lear, stressing every word that was capitalised in the First Folio, to ludicrous effect.
Authenticity in Shakespeare was not one of his causes. Too much had changed, and would change. In 200 years the plays would probably need translating. And theatre itself was so ephemeral, like any living thing. A group of people combined for a spell to put on performances that were never the same twice, a bubble that had to burst as soon as they left the stage.
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. Despite precocious success from Cambridge onwards, he never felt comfortable at the pinnacle of British theatre—especially not at the National, a dizzying public role where, like Nelson on his column, pigeons got him from every side.
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.
Politics v art
Such a company needed a permanent home. A decent building conferred identity and drew in money. Without them, the British public seemed not to notice theatre. To the RSC’s natural home in Stratford he added London bases at the Aldwych and, later, the Barbican, and also oversaw the National’s move from the cramped Old Vic to a sprawling new concrete venue on the South Bank. His switch from the RSC to the National was rocky; he was seen as a traitor by one, as an interloper by the other. And 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 crisscrossed 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.
Correction (September 29th, 2017): The original version of this article named Charles Laughton as Peter Hall’s most famous American hire. Laughton was a Briton, though, albeit one hired from Hollywood. The text has been changed to reflect this.