How We Met: Sir Peter Hall & Stephen Unwin

'Imagine! The country's leading theatrical force inviting a student director for a chat'
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The Independent Online

Stephen Unwin, 48, is a theatre director and producer. In 1993 he founded English Touring Theatre, which has taken more than 40 productions to theatres across the UK. He lives in London and has two children

The story of our meeting says a lot about Peter. There I was, 19 and at Cambridge, directing lots of plays, and I wandered down to the porter's lodge one morning to check my pigeonhole and there was this letter from the National Theatre. It said: "Dear Stephen, I gather that you're doing very good work at Cambridge. I wonder if you'd like to come and see me. Yours, Peter Hall." Imagine! The country's leading theatrical force inviting an unheard-of student director out of the blue for a chat. I duly trotted up to London, and he was very warm and charming.

They were setting up the National Theatre Studio at the time, so that may have been what he'd had in mind when sending the letter, but didn't actually spell out. So I went home thinking, what was all that about? Where's my production in the Olivier! But of course that would have been absurd. I was a baby and knew nothing and no one. But after graduating I did do some work for the National Studio, and met lots of theatre people who are still "colleagues", 30 years on. It was like being inducted into a gang, and it was Peter Hall, and through him, Peter Gill at the National Theatre Studio, who facilitated that, so I owe him an awful lot for that first meeting. I never did find out who his spy at Cambridge was.

A few months ago he rang up and asked if I was interested in taking on this project he's been spearheading for the past six years, overseeing plans for a new theatre in Kingston. He'd got to the point where he didn't want to be the boss man any more, but would stay on as director emeritus.

We talked about how it could work, because the project still had some serious problems. Here was this extraordinary building, based on the old Rose in Southwark, but modern. It just needs the money to run it. It's not difficult to bring in work from outside, but the aim is for this Rose to become a producing house, at which point Peter and I will do the producing together, putting the spoken word at the heart of the work. We both feel that's an area that has been a bit neglected.

I think Peter and I liked each other from the start because we spoke the same language. He passionately believes in using proper actors, and paying attention to the text of a play, as I do. But more than that, he tends to attract loyalty because he himself makes attachments that last.

Before the first rehearsal for the production of Uncle Vanya we are putting on at The Rose, I was keen to impress on the younger actors just who they were dealing with. After all, this is the man who founded both the RSC and the National Theatre. But in the end he did it for me. "The last time I directed Uncle Vanya was in 1950," he told them, and they gaped.

Sir Peter Hall, 77, is a director and producer of theatre, opera and film. He led the RSC and then the National over 25 years; the Peter Hall Company is now in its sixth touring season. He lives in Chelsea, London, with his wife and daughter, aged 15, and has five grown-up children from previous marriages

I wrote Stephen a letter because one of my colleagues at the National – Michael Rudman, it might have been – told me he was doing good work as an undergraduate at Cambridge. I've always tried to keep in touch with young people in that way. I remember being impressed with his seriousness and his passion to direct.

Peter Gill was at that point setting up the Studio at the National Theatre, and I suggested to Stephen that he get in touch with Peter, which he did, and subsequently spent some time developing himself there.

It's a small profession and I've constantly been aware of his career, particularly since he started English Touring Theatre to take high-quality classic drama all over the country. The commitment he's had to Shakespeare, Ibsen and Chekhov chimes with me, because those playwrights have been the bedrock of my work, too.

What has interested me in Stephen's development is that I suspect, somewhat like me, he's a theatrical puritan in that language and text are his starting point. He's certainly not of the modern directing school of taking a concept, then making it fit the play. But while I've seen and admired some of his company's productions, we've never done anything together, and it wasn't until The Rose at Kingston came along that I thought there could be a collaboration.

What made me think of Stephen was that I needed more support, and he's a very good producer as well as director, and also we needed an opening production that would have a certain gloss about it.

When I rang up Stephen and said, "Let's talk about what you're doing and what I'm doing," he asked, "Why don't I do a production [with English Touring Theatre] that could open at the Rose?" So I'm directing Uncle Vanya. It'll be the first time we've worked together, having known each other for 30 years. But, then, some projects take time to mature.

'Uncle Vanya' opens the inaugural season of the Rose Theatre, Kingston-upon-Thames (0871 230 1552) on 16 January, and tours to a further eight venues

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