Edward Hall: Like father, like son

Sir Peter Hall is a hard act to follow, but his award-winning 36-year-old director son Edward is doing a good job. In anticipation of its West End opening tonight, he talks to Aleks Sierz about his all-male Midsummer Night's Dream and walking out on the RSC
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The Independent Culture

The director Edward Hall has had a bumper year. His shows - including the award-winning Rose Rage and Sean Bean's Macbeth - have wowed audiences in Britain and Europe. At the moment, his version of David Mamet's Edmond, starring Kenneth Branagh, is packing them in at the National, and his touring production of A Midsummer Night's Dream opens in London's West End tonight.

He has also survived his first year as a dad with his enthusiasm for the role undiminished - and his father, the director Sir Peter Hall, is celebrating 50 years in the theatre.

When I ask Edward Hall whether he's seen any of his father's versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream, he laughs. "As a baby, I was in one of them! I was in a film he made, but I can't say I remember doing it!" So, no danger of parental influence here. Hall the younger's Dream is performed by Propeller, his all-male touring company based at the underfunded Watermill Theatre in Newbury. "The company is the same one that did Rose Rage," he says. "They've stayed together, which is terrific, but they're broke as a result." Propeller chose A Midsummer Night's Dream because they wanted a change from "the bloody civil war of Rose Rage", and to do a play about love. "But we soon discovered that the Dream is full of cruelty and conflict, while at the same time being very erotic and very funny." They use 12 actors, few props, lots of live music and physical work. "We do the full text - it's fast and light on its feet," says 36-year-old Hall."

But can this magical play survive so much testosterone? "We had to get in touch with our feminine side," the boyish Hall says, ironically, "but what's interesting about men playing women is that the audience stops being interested in the sexual chemistry between the actors and starts listening to the words." No homoeroticism? "No, the Elizabethans were not as obsessed as we are with labelling sexuality - they were interested in the emotions of love, and how to express them in poetry."

Do school audiences make a noise when his actors kiss on stage? "Lots, yeah, it's great. We love it," he says, hitting the table for emphasis. "So then the actors do it again." He clearly relishes the idea that a fairy such as Peaseblossom "can be masculine and proud", and the "extraordinary romance" of a man playing Titania, and a man dressed as an ass. Turned into an ass, Bottom has a "rather a big thing downstairs". Hung like a donkey? "Yeah, and so Oberon, Titania's consort, is a little put out when she has such a good time with him!"

Hall's confidence can be gauged by the fact that he's opening his show in August, a traditionally slow time in the West End. He's also in competition with his wife, Issy van Randwyck (a sparky Dutch baroness and former member of the cabaret trio Fascinating Aïda), who is playing Titania in the Regent's Park open-air production of the play. "My wife's version is pretty good, so I hope that not everyone goes to see that, and that some people come to see us!" Their daughter Georgia is 14 months old, and fatherhood "feels great". Is he a slack dad? "No, I like to be hands-on. I absolutely love it. It's my most important production." Whom does Georgia look like? "That depends on what she's doing - you see different parts of you reflected. It's fascinating and wonderful."

Husband and wife plan to collaborate on another production, a show called Dead Divas, written by Georgia Pritchett of 2DTV. "In it, Issy will play a deranged fan who keeps latching on to divas and role-playing their lives." She will impersonate several divas, from Billie Holiday to Mama Cass, and the one-woman show may open early next year. This year, Hall also directed the world premiere of The Hinge of the World by Richard N Goodwin in Guildford in April. The playwright used to be the speech-writer for President Lyndon B Johnson, and "wrote the great civil-rights speech in 1964. He's quite a guy - he was sitting next to Kennedy when Marilyn Monroe sang 'Happy Birthday, Mr President'."

Mamet's Edmond is about a rich American's descent into an urban nightmare, and Hall, who lives in south London, feels the play's violence in his guts. When I mention street crime, he responds: "Oh, listen, our house in Streatham got broken into the other night while we were in. And I've got a 14-month-old baby. The guy got away, unfortunately. Your liberal sentiments go out of the window. It's an emotional thing - there's nothing political about it. Our problem is drug culture, which causes 90 per cent of crime."

With Hall, there are two awkward questions you can't avoid. Awkward question number one is about why, in March 2002, he walked out of the Royal Shakespeare Company just two days before rehearsals for Edward III. "It seems a long time ago now," he says wearily. "But I was expected to start rehearsing without a full cast, and that was unacceptable." He's talked about the "confusion within the company", which was demoralised by the artistic director Adrian Noble's decision to jump ship after attempting to reorganise the RSC.

"But I was upset," says Hall, "that the event was turned into an example of why the RSC was falling to pieces, when actually it was just an incident. I love that company, and I don't believe in washing dirty laundry in public." He is now equally complimentary about Noble and his successor, Michael Boyd. But, bearing in mind his previous RSC successes such as Julius Caesar, has he been invited back? "I'm quite busy at the moment," he says, laughing like the freelancer he is. "I'd love to work at the RSC, and I'm sure it will happen."

Has he ever fantasised about doing the top job there? "I was really flattered that people thought I could," he says. "But I never imagined in a million years that I'd be running a building." In fact, his hands are full with his touring company. "Simply put, all my energy is going into Propeller."

Awkward question number two is about his father. By choosing a career in directing, is he following in dad's footsteps? Well, the older Hall doesn't seem to loom much on the younger's horizon. When I ask him about a famous anecdote, it takes him a while to remember. "Oh yes, when I was 16 years old, he explained how to do Shakespeare in about 20 minutes," he says. "I keep his ideas about the iambic pentameter as a touchstone."

What does he think about his father's new book, Shakespeare's Advice to the Players? "I haven't read it - yet. Look, he's been in Bath working very hard, and I've been here working very hard, so we haven't seen much of each other. But Peter's achievement is extraordinary - even when he's so old that he has to be carried into the room, you'll still find him rehearsing plays in cold church halls on winter mornings. He's indefatigable."

Unlike his dad, Edward came late to theatre. The son of Peter and his second wife, Jacky Taylor, Edward never saw his oft-married father as a role model. "He left home when I was 13. He was brilliant when he was there, but for a lot of my childhood, he was away working." Edward grew up sporty, taking 50 runs off Nasser Hussain as a teenager, and still rides a motorbike. He caught the acting bug at Bedales, but decided to study the philosophy of science at Leeds University.

Leaving university after a year, he went to Mountview theatre school. "I was a terrible actor," he says, "the analytical part of my mind never quite let go." Instead, he became a director. He can't help who his father is, and uses a well-worn defence. "Liza Minnelli calls it the 'of course' syndrome. If you do something good, everyone says, 'Of course she's a success, she's Judy Garland's daughter'. If you fail, they say, 'Of course, she's not as talented as her mother'."

"Peter gives me notes, and I give him notes." No rivalry? "No, none at all. He's wonderfully proud and very helpful to me, and I'm very proud and very helpful to him." In one review recently, he laughs, "the critic pointed out that Peter was my father, which makes a nice change from being someone famous's son."

'A Midsummer Night's Dream' opens tonight at the Comedy Theatre, Panton Street, London SW1 (020-7369 1731)