Sir Peter Hall: Godfather of British theatre turns 80

Peter Hall celebrates his 80th birthday with a return to the National Theatre to direct Twelfth Night. Here, his fellow director Richard Eyre marvels at his career and undimmed energy
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I was a latecomer to the theatre, 15 years old when I saw a play called Hamlet of which I knew almost nothing (I was a science nerd). I knew even less of the actor who played Hamlet – Peter O'Toole in his unreconstructed state – dark-haired, wild, violent, mercurial and thrilling, before stardom and Lawrence of Arabia turned him blonde and small-nosed. I was like the composer Berlioz who said after seeing a performance of the same play in Paris: "Shakespeare, coming on me unawares, struck me like a thunderbolt."

It was some years before I had the opportunity to follow up my new passion for Shakespeare but then, within a shortish period, I saw two productions at Stratford-on-Avon which changed my life. The first, in 1962, was Peter Brook's production of King Lear with Paul Scofield, in which the play was revealed in all its elemental force in a production which refused the audience the comfort of making judgements on the characters. As it did for many of my generation, it made me think I wanted to spend my life working in the theatre.

The second production was Peter Hall's The Wars of the Roses (his and John Barton's conflation of Shakespeare's history plays), which was swift, graphic, unsentimental, brilliantly acted, and brought Shakespeare into the world of contemporary power-politics. It made me think I wanted to be a director. Both productions were part of the work of the newly created Royal Shakespeare Company.

The RSC was Peter Hall's creation. Like Harold Wilson standing outside the door of Number 10 as a child aspiring to become Prime Minister, Peter Hall had always harboured the dream of running the Stratford theatre. And when his dream was realised by being invited to Stratford at the age of 27 to be director of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre – young, ambitious, talented and iconoclastic – he managed to persuade the Chairman of the Trustees that the part-time summer Shakespeare festival could and should evolve into a major European theatre company. It was a remarkable vision and remarkably achieved in the face of considerable opposition from the theatre's board, from the commercial theatre and from the newly emergent National Theatre under Laurence Olivier [Hall later ran the National Theatre].

At the RSC, Hall recruited an ensemble of actors on three-year contracts and a team of directors and designers. John Barton, then a university don, joined him as one of the associate directors, along with Peter Brook, while the designer John Bury, who had worked for years with Joan Littlewood, developed an ascetic house style, using natural materials – iron, wood and stone – and clothes that were rough and lived-in.

Over the seven years that Hall ran the company, the RSC opened a London home at the Aldwych, continued to produce a succession of fine Shakespeare productions, put some outstanding new plays at the centre of the repertoire – without precedent for a classical company – and acquired an international reputation. It's not hard to see why the reputation and influence of this period has endured, and has acted as a benchmark and provocative inspiration to succeeding generations of actors and directors.

It's not hard, too, when you talk to Peter now, to realise that nothing could match or did match the frenzied thrill of re-inventing the British theatre in the early Sixties. Apart from creating an astonishingly successful theatre company, he created the template of the modern director – part-magus, part-impresario, part-politician and part celebrity. He was – and is – the godfather (in both senses) of British theatre and like many directors, writers and actors of several generations I have much to be grateful to him for.

I've known him well since 1974 when he came to Nottingham Playhouse to see my production of Trevor Griffiths' play Comedians. The night he came was memorable as much for his presence as for the fact that at the conclusion of Jonathan Pryce's monologue the line, "Still, I made the buggers laugh..." provoked a sensational response. A woman shouted out: "You didn't! You didn't!" and the lights came up on a chilled and shaken audience.

When I met Peter after the show he told me that it was one of the most remarkable moments he'd ever had in a theatre, and congratulated me on my direction of the moment. It was years before I confessed to him that I was as shocked as everybody else, that the woman wasn't planted, that it had never happened before and that it had nothing to do with me or my direction. It was years later still that I discovered the identity of the woman who cried out – a charming, forthright gardening expert and mother of a now successful actor.

Peter Hall brought Comedians to the National Theatre (then housed at the Old Vic) and then brought me to the National Theatre (by then moved to the South Bank) as an associate director. My first production there was Guys and Dolls and I discovered that Peter was a patient, generous and astute producer. For a theatre company that was teetering on the edge of a deficit it was an extraordinarily courageous thing to have agreed to let a novice at staging musicals direct the NT's first musical. If Peter was nervous he never showed it and I learned from him the indispensable maxim of producing: that no advice is worth giving to a director (or actor, writer or designer) that he is not able to act on; the rest is self-indulgence.

Peter has a protean energy and an apparently insatiable appetite for work that, were he not so apparently self-assured, would denote a deep-set insecurity. No one that could twice contemplate suicide, as he confesses in his autobiography, could claim to be without self-doubt, but it's a mark of his strength that he invariably radiates confidence and, if he receives a critical drubbing, emerges like a large shaggy dog coming out of the river, shaking the abuse from him and pounding enthusiastically towards his next production.

Restlessness is Peter's natural condition. He has a sort of existential itch: he lives to direct and directs to live. A few years ago I told him that I wouldn't be directing anything new for nearly two years. "I'd go mad," he said.

Of his countless productions four stand out for me both as entirely exemplary productions and as wholly characteristic of the work and the man: The Wars of the Roses and The Homecoming at the RSC, Antony and Cleopatra at the NT and Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream at Glyndebourne. They were great productions, all marked by a highly focused energy, by lucidity, by musicality and by humanity.

At the age of 80 the energy is still apparent not only in his voracious appetite for work, but in his persistent evangelism for theatre and for public funding of the arts. His lucidity remains a characteristic of any conversation with him. He takes a delight in excoriating politicians for their philistinism, in arguing for Beckett over Brecht, in promoting the primacy of Shakespeare, in advocating the importance of verse speaking. His musicality is inherent – he's been a gifted and knowledgeable musician since childhood – and it's apparent in his fervent concern for verse speaking, his insistence that playing Shakespeare is like playing jazz – play the line, listen to the beat, it's how you nearly break the rhythm that enables you to express the emotion and allows you to express what the character feels.

Peter is not clubbable nor is he gregarious, but no one who has seen him, like a Tolstoyan patriarch, in the company of his six children could deny his warm love for them and theirs for him. There's a sweet circularity in the fact that he's returning to Twelfth Night and to the National Theatre to coincide with his 80th birthday. It's his fourth production of a play that he first directed as a student at Cambridge in 1954. With his brilliant daughter, Rebecca, as Viola, I can't imagine a more perfectly appropriate birthday present or a happier way of celebrating his extraordinary career.

Happy birthday, Peter.

Judi Dench

Nobody misses anything out with Peter. There's no cheating. No mis-scans. [On rehearsing the death of Cleopatra with Miranda Foster]: Three hours later, Peter's still standing there with a lectern, making everybody speak the verse properly. And Miranda got up and went: 'Our roy-al la-dy's dead.' I was in hysterics. And there was a moment. And Peter said: 'Thank Christ!'

Kim Cattrall

He's a joy. Generous, patient, but insistent, coaxing, relaxed, charming, delightful, instinctive, detailed and forever listening. He'll be hidden behind the open script, spectacles perched on nose, full of questions to ponder over. For him it's a 10am to 4pm work day, an hour lunch break with a side of forbidden chips. He's sworn to secrecy, respectful of each actor's individual penny dropping.

He gives you a gentle nudge, but never a harsh word. He always encourages you back to the text, laughing over the silliest of fumbles and then a direct, but sly challenge on a moment you thought you had understood and conquered a week earlier.

He's a storyteller, telling glorious anecdotes of acting legends being mere mortals. Peggy Ashcroft, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson all enter your rehearsal room. And then, you're previewing/opening. When the safety curtain won't go up on our invited dress, Peter makes a witty speech that we'll continue as soon as we can. The audience adore him and you become a tighter company.

Backstage support is high from the cast and crew. He makes thoughtful notes backstage on press night. Then, he lets go. It always goes too quickly.

Ian McKellen

Although he was a student actor, Peter Hall has not yet acted professionally. Since he replaced Olivier as Director of the National Theatre, it has been the rule that subsidised theatres should no longer be run by actor-managers but by directors. His three successors at the NT have all been Cambridge graduates with a degree in English. Although, like them, he has directed operas as well as plays, he has rarely attempted musicals or films.

I am personally grateful to him for casting me on Broadway and at the NT and for treating actors with enthusiastic respect, often within companies with long-term contracts. He told me he once considered a career in politics. In fact he has had one, challenging successive governments to recognise their responsibility to the arts. In so many campaigns, he as been an undisputed leader.

His autumnal Twelfth Night for the Royal Shakespeare Company (1960) has never been surpassed, adding a special anticipation for his 80th birthday revival at the Cottesloe.

Timothy West

I was directed by Peter in The Government Inspector in 1964 but I was also at The Royal Shakespeare Company in 1962 during his experimental Dirty Plays season. Working under his direction, I was most conscious that the whole creation of the RSC was his idea. Previously, it had been just a different collection of actors for the season and Shakespeare was the only option. His idea was that classical and modern theatre are interdependent. As ideas go it was new, exciting and it worked triumphantly. Peter had such vision. Despite his amazing energy, I never felt he was an astoundingly innovative director but when it came to putting companies together he was a visionary. Never afraid to take risks or make himself unpopular (as member of the Arts Council of Great Britain, Thatcher hated him), Peter is the oldest statesman standing up for what he believes in: the future of the theatre.

Janie Dee

Last week I was listening to Peter once again, giving a talk. Peter was very open, honest and exact, as he usually is, and a little sad. He is our own great theatre maker – director, producer, writer, collaborator and sincere theatre lover – and he can't get enough of it all. His sadness on this occasion was the latest cuts to everything, in particular the arts. He didn't come from a theatre family, it was revealed, which came as a surprise to me. His father was a station master. I have only ever known him as director and one of my best teachers. He teaches me constantly. Every word is gold dust. But what I cherish most is his trust of the "music" and his adherence to it. He also asks things like, "How do you think you say that? Is it, 'I love you', 'I love you' or 'I love you'?" On our first night of Design for Living, which was my first production with him together with Harold Pinter's Betrayal, I knew exactly what I was saying and why.

He's a family man and everyone is embraced in his world. He can talk about Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson, things Peggy Ashcroft used to say to him, what it's like to work with Dustin Hoffman, Judi Dench, and now proudly, his daughter Rebecca reaching that level of greatness and his son Edward, who directs and runs a company as well as now taking over artistically at Hampstead. He is father to us all.

Peter Bowles

I have been lucky enough to have been taken under Sir Peter's powerful wings for the past 18 years. Sir Peter has, in my experience anyway, a unique way with his actors. He is at all times gracious, kind, understanding and always ready to listen to any ideas they may have. He is never directorial, never bullying. If he is demanding it is only because he is always encouraging his actors to reach their full potential. The atmosphere he creates in rehearsals is wonderful, hard work and merry laughter, and every actor is aware that they are privileged to be working for a giant who has directed every truly great actor of the later half of the 20th century. I love him.

Penelope Keith

As a young ineffectual actress, such was the commotion I felt at the first superfluous joy of being depicted by Peter in The Wars of the Roses, at Stratford in 1963. However, we must not anticipate the past and it gives me joy infallible to be conjoined with him again in The Rivals at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. It is the icing on the loaf. He is the pineapple of perfection.

Julian Glover

Peter's direction was always dealt to me with great delicacy and gentleness. Peter likes actors, he doesn't twist or confine them, he gives nice notes, and doesn't intervene over much – unless you express bad taste. I will never forget during the first rehearsal of Julius Caesar in Stratford, 1995, Peter opening the script and exclaiming, "My system of rehearsal is non-negotiable. We do the verse." As actors that had been doing Shakespeare for years we glanced at each other with knowing smiles. Halfway through the afternoon I was a sworn adherent. For Peter, the structure and form of the language is always absolutely crucial and after that first rehearsal of Julius Caesar I was led to completely change my approach to Friar Lawrence, a character that I was playing at the same time in Adrian Noble's production of Romeo and Juliet.

I also had the most delightful and invigorating experience playing Galileo alongside his daughter, and when Waiting for Godot was transferred to the Piccadilly Theatre in 1998, I was lucky enough to be cast. Yet again, his fantastic attention to the text made me understand what it is really all about, and it showed the audience, too. I love working with Peter and his corpus of works stands proud of all of them. I believe he will go down as the greatest theatrical director of the 20th century.

Greg Hicks

Having directed me in 13 productions over the last 20 years, Peter has given me a huge solid frame in which to explore the structure of Shakespeare's language. His knowledge of how classical texts are formed and structured is unsurpassable, but he is able to apply this on human level. As a young actor he saw that I was fascinated by strong form and showed me how that would liberate me. Peter understands that with form really rooted you can fly. In this way he is incredibly encouraging to the blossoming of talent. In demanding such tremendous respect for the language, rehearsals could always be based on the premise of not knowing where things would lead, but with such understanding of structure and form Peter could then reign it all in and frame it.

Unlike other directors who know from the off-set where they are going to take their productions, Peter let actors bring their own colour and style. He used to say, "If you want to know how to speak the language of Shakespeare, listen to great jazz." I am lucky to have worked with such a remarkable director, teacher, and incredibly warm-hearted human being.

Harriet Walter

Peter has been a huge influence on everything. As a director he understood the importance of ensemble and as a spokesperson he always fought for subsidized theatre. I always appreciated the enjoyable atmosphere he created and I have the greatest respect for his legacy at the Royal Shakespeare Company.