The theatrical roles of Lord Vestibule
POWER PLAY: The Life and Times of Peter Hall Stephen Fay Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 20
Saturday 27 May 1995
Although this is the first biography, Peter Hall himself has recently published an autobiography, which together with the Diaries and the innumerable profiles and press reports, makes for an extremely well-documented life. Despite interviewing many of Hall's family, friends and colleagues and uncovering letters from luminaries such as Peggy Ashcroft, Harold Pinter and Laurence Olivier, Fay finds little of substance to add.
So he sticks fairly close to Hall's own account of his childhood: the familiar story of the working-class boy made good; his artistic tastes encouraged by his ambitious mother and aided by the free tickets available to his station-master father. He diverges, however, from Hall in choosing to emphasise his "head boy" qualities at school - charm, intelligence, organisational ability and popularity - rather than accepting Hall's view of himself as a fraudulent, low-class interloper.
Hall's passion for the theatre began with pantomime and puppets and continued through the Perse school plays. He was only 15 when, on a visit to Stratford, he determined that he would, one day, run its theatre, a moment that has now passed into myth in much the same way as Harold Wilson's career- clinching childhood visit to Number Ten. It was, however, at Cambridge, where he was deeply influenced by Dadie Rylands and FR Leavis (who represented the Cavalier and Roundhead sides of his temperament and talent) that his decision took root.
After Cambridge, Hall became the primus inter pares of a new generation of graduates who shifted the balance of theatrical power irrevocably away from actors and writers and towards directors. Aged 24, he was appointed director of the Arts Theatre, where, by a combination of circumstance, he found himself directing the English premiere of Waiting For Godot, which made his name. From there, he moved to Stratford and the founding of the RSC, where he trod a middle path between the star system of the West End and the state subsidy of the Soviet block, made a major contribution to the art of verse-speaking, and directed several productions, notably The Wars Of The Roses, and Pinter's The Homecoming, which remain touchstones today.
Hall's years at the RSC have been well-chronicled; Fay's contribution is to show how the conflict between his roles as director and administrator, which was to become so public in his time at the National, was present from the start. As head of the company, he exercised power - in his first season he replaced his old friend John Barton as director of The Taming Of The Shrew - but his ruthless politicking and managerial manipulation earned the distrust of the very people with whom he worked. So Glenda Jackson described him as a dictator, his first wife, Leslie Caron, likened him to Richelieu, and Franco Zeffirelli, when discussing the character of Iago, remarked "I see him as very young, with a baby face, always smiling . . . Do you act, Mr Hall?"
Fay analyses with considerable tact the breakdown of Hall's first three marriages and his happiness with his fourth wife, the translator, Nicky Frei. Hall is the epitome of the star director and, for years, his private life has received the attention reserved for stars; Fay adds few tints to the official portrait, except to hint at an affair with a youthful Vanessa Redgrave and to name one with his personal assistant, Sue Higginson.
Power Play is an uneven book. It contains several errors of fact (Mary Ure and Vanessa Redgrave did not play Volumnia's daughters in Coriolanus but her daughter-in-law and a friend, Olivier did not play the lead in the original television production of The Collection but in the 1976 transmission, John Barton's The Greeks was far more than a version of The Oresteia) which indicate a wider unease with the theatrical milieu. In providing a detailed account of Hall the power-player, it skirts round the far more significant aspect of Hall the play-maker.
For, above all, Hall is a director and, pace Joan Littlewood who described him as the very worst in the country, he is a great one. At first, Fay appears to balance the demands of management and productions as delicately as Peter Hall himself but, later he focuses too much on the former. He seems far happier in boardrooms than in rehearsal rooms and conveys none of the excitement involved in putting on a play. Few of Hall's productions are examined in any depth. And, although he quotes David Hare's theory of directorial neutrality, Fay offers little analysis of Hall's working methods, the development of his style, or comparisons with his confreres.
This, after all, will be Hall's legacy; not the wives and the enemies and the Sandersons adverts, but the founding of one great national company and the establishment of the other, together with many of the finest theatrical moments of the last 40 years.
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