Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Sir Peter Hall, theatre director

'I directed five plays in my final year'
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The Independent Online

Sir Peter Hall, 77, was the second director of the National Theatre, and the founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company. His many productions include the British premiere of Waiting for Godot, Wagner's Ring cycle at Bayreuth, and the television series The Camomile Lawn. His books include his autobiography, Making an Exhibition of Myself. He directed Noël Coward's The Vortex, now at the Apollo Theatre in London, and Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, which opens at the Old Vic today

Like most directors, I had a toy theatre as a child. My puppets were of cut-out cardboard and wood. They did what they were told, but only what they were told. I remember the excitement when a magical group of professional puppeteers visited my kindergarten in Bury St Edmunds.

We moved to Cambridge and I went to Morley Memorial Junior School, which seemed very rough. Being an only child, and a loner from the wilds of Suffolk, I was mocked by brawling boys and giggling girls. It was bearable because it was just round the corner from home so, if the worst happened, I knew it would take only two minutes to reach the safety of my mother.

I got a scholarship to the Perse Boys School, an ancient grammar. I think four of us had scholarships. Our fees were paid and our books, marked "Minor Scholar's book – to be returned on demand", were supplied by the school and were scruffy; all other boys had new books from their parents. It still rankles.

My first encounter with Shakespeare was at the age of 10. Instead of having to listen to a boring teacher reading out the principal part, we would go down to "The Mummery", which was in the basement of one of the school's Victorian wings, dress up with helmets, cloaks and swords, and shout lines of Macbeth at each other. My history master, John Tanfield, had a long, horsey face and chain-smoked in class. He had been a professional actor and, poor man, directed me as Hamlet in my last year.

Largely because of John Gielgud's Hamlet, which I saw at the Cambridge Arts Theatre during the War, I decided at 14 that I wanted to be a director, though I didn't know what a director did. Going to Cambridge, where there was so much amateur theatre, seemed the right way to go about it.

At the interview for St Catharine's College, Tom Henn, who could reduce himself to tears by intoning great verse, asked me to deliver Petruchio's "wooing speech" from The Taming of the Shrew, and my ringing voice woke up his sleeping spaniels. I was awarded an exhibition in English and a county scholarship. In the first term of my first year, I booked the ADC Theatre for the first week of my third year.

I was never going to be an actor, but was in a number of productions during my first two years. I understudied a part in Agamemnon with one line in Greek, which I wrote on my shield. In Romeo and Juliet, I had a big duel with John Barton, who had already wrecked his back in a duel in Macbeth; now I split one of his fingers and he had to go to hospital.

When John directed, he used to eat razor blades during rehearsals. We would ask, "Do you think that's wise?", but he would still put them in his mouth and turn them over with his tongue; there was even a story about an actress fainting as the blood trickled from his mouth.

I got a First in Prelims, then a 2:1. The inspirer of my last years at the Perse had been Douglas Brown, a famous old pupil who was now supervising me at St Catharine's. When I told him I was directing five productions in my last year, he said, "You will fail your Finals. I'm not going to waste your time and mine by asking you to come for supervisions. Come and have a drink when you see the results." I got a 2:2 – and a drink.