Exit the man in black

INTERVIEW: Peter Hall is back at the RSC. For a limited time only.
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The Independent Culture
Peter Hall has been marched on to the stage of Stratford's Memorial Theatre to summon some ghosts. It is 28 years since he last worked at this theatre, which he left in 1968 after 10 years as artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. First, however, he must overcome the shock of the new in the shape of a party of schoolchildren on a backstage tour. "We didn't do this in my day - but of course it's a good thing. They'll be here when I'm pushing up the daisies," he mutters. And, as if jogged by a whisper of his own mortality, the past begins to flood in.

"So many memories," he muses, looking around him. "Coming here as a schoolboy in the Forties, standing at the back. When I was doing national service in the RAF, I was posted for an entire summer three miles away. I used to come down on the bus and stand at the back for two bob. I saw all those plays in 1948 many, many times, and learnt one of the healthy but appalling rules of the theatre - how good work got better and bad work got worse.

"But there's people mainly. Peggy Ashcroft, Michel St Denis, Edith Evans, Paul Robeson, Mary Ure, Harry Andrews. All dead now. When I saw Peggy here first in 1950 I didn't actually dream that 10 years later she would be leading the company that I was directing; she was the person who really made the ensemble work." Then he snatches himself back to the present. "Actually I'm not a great 'old boy' - if I was, I don't think I'd be here because it is too full of ghosts. I don't think of them. That's not to say I don't honour and love them. But you have to get on with it. I've been a director for over 40 years, but I'm still only as good as the play I do next week. If you're a surgeon, accountant or lawyer, you don't get publicly judged each time you do something. I think that's quite healthy in our profession."

Nevertheless, it is surprising that an old grandee like Hall still finds himself asking "Can I do it? Shall I be found out?" with each new production and with Julius Caesar, which he is directing for the first time, in particular. The play has featured vividly in a recurrent nightmare which started when Hall was appointed to run Stratford. In the dream, he is directing the play with a rabble of small boys he can "neither control nor inspire. During a particularly noisy riot, I overhear one whispering to another: 'They say he used to direct at Stratford, but I don't believe it'." He always wakes up sweating. It's convinced him that young actors couldn't care less who he is. "If I strolled in and said, 'I founded this company,' they would say, 'Get the hell out of here, you silly old fart.' The question they ask is, 'What are we doing now, and can you make this play live for us?' "

There should be something faintly chilling about a man who decided at the age of 15 that he would run Stratford and did so shortly before his 28th birthday. But there isn't. Not in a frosty way, anyway. Sir Peter Hall, the key figure of postwar theatre, whom we must thank for making the RSC a national company, for establishing the National Theatre as an indispensable part of British culture and for the fact that anyone can still deliver Shakespearian verse, might have chilled in the past. These days he charms.

It's partly the costume. He appears to have cast off the director's standard- issue black, which in his case often included something aggressively leathery. It's partly the props. That cliched impresario accessory, the fat cigar, has been extinguished once and for all. Today he's a chubby- cheeked 64-year-old, all natural linen and washed-out needlecord and that funny Elizabethan beard which is far too silvery to be sinister.

It's mostly to do with the set. Hall feels very much at home here. "I've always adored working at Stratford. It's where the energy is," he says. But for the violet velveteen decor, the theatre space is much as Hall left it, a radical overhaul of the Thirties movie-palace it resembled in 1958. "There was nothing soft or mysterious, nothing warm or reassuring or curving [he might be describing a woman]; the acoustics were as hollow as a bathroom. It wasn't a theatre for subtlety and it didn't suit Shakespeare." He made it into a space enjoyed by actors and audiences alike, and suiting Shakespeare best of all.

It's hard to resist a rosy spectacled view of Hall's Stratford in the Sixties. To a certain extent Hall himself embodies Sixties mythology - clever, classless, visionary, vigorous, ambitious, audacious. He had just married the Hollywood actress Leslie Caron, and they lived in a gracious house with lawns sloping down to the Avon. In summer he went to work by powerboat; in winter he drove in in his 1922 Roller, a 30th birthday present from his wife. His productions brought together two distinguished generations of actors - the established stars such as Gielgud, Olivier, Richardson, Robeson, Ashcroft, Scofield, Evans - and the prodigiously talented unknowns - Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave, Ian Richardson, Ian Holm, Julian Glover, Dorothy Tutin.

Golden years. Hall wrote in his diaries: "I think, now, from my own point of view, that it was a mistake to leave the RSC." He added that, "in a sense, ever since I left the RSC I have felt that I lacked a true home." And yet Hall refuses to wash the past with romance.

"The house was lovely, but there were 12 other people living in the back purlieus. I think for the first few years Leslie was very happy there, but it was very difficult for her; actually, I think coming to Stratford was probably what ruined my first marriage. I was terribly happy here, but I was also very unhappy. But I don't look back. I'm happier now than I've ever been, largely because of Nicki (his fourth wife) and the children and the new baby (three-year-old Emma). And the work."

He has worked with each one of his talented tribe of six children (including Emma, who made her acting debut in his film Jacob) and recently wrote the screen play of Sacred Hunger with Nicki. Having just finished his first Hollywood film, Never Talk to Strangers, he is boyishly excited by the possibilities of film - "the piecing together of the jigsaw puzzle until there comes a moment when the material tells you what it is". He will spend autumn making a two-part film for Channel 4 (co-produced by his eldest son Christopher) in St Lucia, and the Peter Hall Company production line continues with Alan Bates in The Master Builder. Then there's a "very subjective" film about childhood he wants to do, Lear (which he's never done) and much more. "I'd like to have another 30 or 40 years..." Not long ago, being frantically busy was a financial imperative created by having several families to support and educate; now it's a way of life. "A chemical thing, I think," he says. "I'm addicted to adrenaline."

Certainly, he no longer wastes energy regretting his decision to leave the RSC. "Everybody feels that when they leave the RSC they are leaving home, but one of the things about home is you've got to leave it. Ten years is a long while. If I'd stayed it would have been a very bad thing for the RSC and for me, too, probably. I'd made the RSC, done the "Wars of the Roses": there was a lot of achievement. I had three very hard years towards the end when the Arts Council was trying to get the RSC out of London and back to Stratford so that we didn't have two national theatres. I've always believed passionately - and still do - that you must have two national theatres, and I certainly don't understand why idiotic Tories don't understand that artistic competition is important. But then they'd sooner have no art at all..."

Suddenly a glimpse of Hall the politician emerges, reminding you how he persistently put his head above the parapet and made rowdy and eloquent noises on behalf of the arts when he ran the National Theatre for 15 years throughout the Seventies and Eighties. More important, you realise how quiet it has been since his departure, how comparatively lily-livered and acquiescent our arts big-shots have become. Hall was on the Arts Council and on various committees for the advancement of this and that, then it all stopped. Mrs Thatcher hated him, the Establishment dropped him. "I do miss all the politics," he confesses. So would a peerage put the political wind back in his sails?

"I wouldn't prefer me if I was a Tory," he smiles. "I don't particularly want a peerage, but I would like to do more for the arts world. I believe very fervently in British culture [which is why he has turned down endless invitations to set up Shakespeare institutes in the States], and I'm still furious at what Thatcher did to our broadcasting, our education and our performing arts, absolutely furious - and I think the public is stupid not to have noticed and to have allowed it to happen."

Hall also lays the decline in verse-speaking at Mrs Thatcher's feet. No money for repertory theatres, therefore little experience of Shakespeare and consequently young actors who "don't even know what the tune is. That's a terrible terrible change - the result of all those Thatcherite years." Hall has always insisted that where you breathe - at the end of a line or a caesura - is the most important thing in Shakespeare. He claims that he still mutters the text to himself in Elizabethan when preparing for a Shakespeare play. "It reveals the shapes and colours and always makes the words wittier," he says, treating me to a quick blast which sounds like Ian Paisley imitating Bob Marley.

Julian Glover, who is playing Cassius and last worked with Hall in 1959 on Coriolanus (starring Olivier), has been astonished to find such an emphasis on verse-speaking. Back in the Fifties, he recalls, "Peter didn't have a bee in his bonnet like he does now." He did, as it happens. It developed at Cambridge, but the buzzing wasn't necessary because actors of Glover's generation could do it. According to Glover, Hall came in to the first rehearsal of Caesar saying, "My system is non-negotiable." "I don't know any other director who would do that. But Peter's approach to Shakespeare is revelatory. If you trust him, it works wonderfully. It means you get Julius Caesar as Shakespeare intended - no fruit stalls, no horses' hooves, no Mussolini costumes, no rhubarbing crowd scenes, just the words as if newly minted. As long as you do that he is happy for you to add whatever business you want."

In spite of Hall's recurrent nightmare - indeed, perhaps because of it - his work, particularly his productions of Shakespeare, has rarely lacked inspiration. And control comes naturally. His size inevitably makes him imposing, but in rehearsals he seems more than usually formidable. He sits in front consulting his text which is perched on a music stand. With a pedantry verging on fanaticism, his pencil, held like a baton, marks five beats to a line. "If you make a mistake the pencil goes down on to the page, 'clack'," says Glover. "It can be infuriating. He's very firm, but he says things like, 'It would be much more delightful if you do it my way.' " Julian Glover's son sat behind Hall when his father played Henry IV. Throughout the first speech the director's fingers marked five beats to each line. At the end of the speech he clenched his fist and nodded his head, satisfied.

Hall has often said that directing easily breeds megalomaniacs and manipulators. "My enemies have said I haven't avoided it, my friends say I have. It sounds extremely pious, but in my work I try and tell the truth, try and deal squarely with the actors. I try not to be sadistic and I try not to pull rank." (Since he stopped running a theatre, Hall's enemies have been scarce; actors who don't resent his benevolent dictatorship adore him, and claim he instills tremendous confidence; John Osborne's intense and public dislike of him extended to banning him from his memorial service, though Hall believes it stemmed from his furious discovery that he owned a vintage Jag similar to Osborne's own prized motor.)

While he's loath to give too much away about his current production, he admits that he has been struck by the similarities between Ancient Rome and Westminster 1995. "Julius Caesar is about what actually happens to people in the sort of power struggle we are seeing now. Happily, they don't wear swords at Number 10, but it's exactly the same. Exactly the same. All those people lying through their teeth saying, 'We are doing it for the good of the country' and 'my duty' and 'the air must be cleared'. What's interesting to me is that the problems of leadership, ambition, freedom and loyalty were just the same for Shakespeare looking at ancient Rome as they are for us watching Newsnight."

With that, he says he must go. As he gets up, he volunteers that he hasn't yet read Stephen Fay's unauthorised biography and asks if I have. Yes, I reply, and tell him that it deals well with his professional life but, as far as his personal life is concerned, is as circumspect as his autobiography. Except, that is (and I blush purple), in its revelation of his affair with Vanessa Redgrave here in Stratford in the Sixties. "Ah," said Hall, with a wide beam that pretended to confirm everything but actually confirmed nothing. "Ah," he chuckled, and the beam widened through our goodbyes and carried him cheerfully off, back to the power play of Julius Caesar, to the safety of Shakespeare and texts you can trust.