Sir Peter Hall apologises for 'unintentionally' heckling Downton actress after falling asleep during her West End debut

Famed director says his 'bizarre' outburst was a result of 'disorientation'

It has been variously described as a heckle, a mutter and even an act of impromptu if less than flattering direction.

Today, however, a new explanation was offered for theatrical titan Sir Peter Hall’s extraordinary outburst during the final, anguished moments of Chekhov’s masterpiece Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville Theatre on Friday night: he was “disorientated” after having just woken up.

Sir Peter, who founded the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and has directed a number of acclaimed productions of the Russian classic during his own long career, apologised to Downton Abbey actress Laura Carmichael whose poignant closing speech espousing the virtues of life over death he interrupted so spectacularly.

In a statement the 81-year-old said: “I am mortified that I unintentionally disrupted the final scene of Uncle Vanya and I have sent a personal note to Laura Carmichael offering my apologies.

“I enjoyed the evening, and her performance, immensely, and I cannot stress too strongly that my remarks were in no way directed at her or the production.”

But he added: “Being rather aged I dropped off for a moment and on being woken by my wife I was briefly disorientated.

”Remarks made in the resulting confusion were not in any way related to Uncle Vanya which I think is a very fine production with a marvellous company of actors.“

According to reports Sir Peter boomed from his seat in the stalls: ”Stop, stop, stop. It doesn't work and you don't work. It is not good enough. I could be at home watching television.“

Many critics and theatre goers attending the glitzy opening night at the Strand in London, were unaware who was responsible for the outburst.

Sir Peter is believed to have made a rapid exit along with his wife Lady Hall and Nica Burns, the theatre’s owner, who said he had been applauding heartily and appeared to have enjoyed himself.

But the identity of the cat caller soon emerged via social media and the internet.

Sir Peter’s comments were interpreted as a swipe not just at Ms Carmichael but also at the production’s translator Christopher Hampton.

But the production, which also features Anna Friel, Ken Stott and Samuel West, has garnered generally positive reviews with 25-year-old Ms Carmichael’s performance as Vanya’s niece Sonya singled out for praise for its sensitivity.

On Friday the theatre was packed with fellow stars of the ITV1 hit period drama who also heaped plaudits on their colleague.

Sir Peter founded the RSC in 1960 aged just 29. He has been one of the towering figures of post war British theatre, regularly directing at the National Theatre.

However, health reasons meant he was unable to take charge of the Bath Festival this year.