Sir Peter Hall: And some have greatness thrust upon them...

He has dominated British theatre for more than half a century and talks fondly of Samuel and Harold, but the founder of the RSC still maintains he is just lucky. Andrew Johnson meets Sir Peter Hall

For a colossus of the theatre Sir Peter Hall comes across as rather humble. He is polite, but doesn't say much, and obviously considers himself the most fortunate of men. Yet, at the same time, you come away from meeting him more than aware of his achievements. He has the uncanny knack of blowing his own trumpet while keeping the noise down.

"It will be seen in a few years' time that the 50 years that made up the end of the last century was a golden age for drama," he says. "I was very lucky, very lucky. I've no idea if I've helped. That's for other people to say.

"The National Theatre has been incredibly important. We worked jolly hard and, if I may say so, very well. [He was the second person to run the National Theatre, taking over from founding artistic director, Laurence Olivier, in 1973]. We also have the benefit of two national theatres, because we also have the Royal Shakespeare Company."

Which he founded. "I wasn't going to say that," he grins. What he also doesn't say is that those 50 golden years happily coincide with his long period of activity.

His is a formidable CV. He directed the English language premiere of Waiting for Godot – recognised as probably the greatest dramatic work of the second half the 20th century – when its author, Samuel Beckett, was unknown, and Sir Peter was only 24. He founded the RSC, which has become a benchmark for dramatic excellence, and was pivotal in bringing another unknown young playwright to world attention – Harold Pinter.

It is not unusual for theatre veterans of a certain calibre to be furious egotists to their dying days – you wouldn't have wanted to catch Pinter on a bad day, for example – but Sir Peter retains the air of a gentle uncle who is somewhat bewildered by all that has happened to him. Yet he is well aware of his achievements. The twinkle in his rheumy eye and the slight smile when talking about the RSC gives him away.

Sometimes, however, he has to state things as they are. But it still doesn't feel like bragging, as he manages to take the edge off it with humility. Was he, for example, aware of exactly what he was achieving when he founded the RSC, or was it one of those bold things only attempted in fearless youth?

"I knew what I was doing – I hoped I did. I hoped it would still be going all this time later," he says. "The thing I'm still proudest of is the creation of a Shakespearean company that knew how to speak Shakespeare. This was a company that was particularly trained and encouraged to speak well and to speak right. Shakespeare continued to be something that people mumbled, they didn't get inside him."

Sir Peter is everything you'd expect an ageing luvvie to be. He sits with the brooding presence of the venerated actor, with a goatee beard, leather jacket and black corduroy trousers, with a Northumbrian tartan scarf tied rakishly around his neck. He looks a bit like a slim Orson Welles, and speaks with a similar actorly rumble.

Even when he does recount his achievements, he seems almost embarrassed.

"I've done David Edgar, I've done David Hare. I've been privileged to work for Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett – and those two I regard as the most important dramatists of this last 50 odd years," he says when talking of the "new" writers he's produced. "But there are lots of others very nearly as good, if not better." He won't say who, claiming "it's difficult to make lists", but also, perhaps, because of the luvvie code of kindness. "I couldn't possibly tell you what Harold was like," he says.

"I love doing new plays because I like meeting new people. I didn't know who Beckett was when I directed Waiting for Godot. I knew he was on in Paris, and I knew it had been a bit of a success. It was in a theatre that held about 80 people – anyway I never saw it. He wrote it in French and rewrote it in English.

"I thought it was a very unique and extraordinary play – very tender, very funny and very compelling. But I certainly had no idea that I was doing Waiting for Godot. I was doing a play. I thought it was very good. I liked the fact it had such a lyrical command of language – it's very beautifully written, and yet it's very funny. I had no idea that it would become an international success. And now it's a classic."

Thus he recounts how he helped recognise and discover the century's greatest dramatist, but in a way that makes it sound as if he just got lucky.

One dramatist left off his list is Alan Ayckbourn. The bard of Scarborough is nothing if not prolific – he has written more than 70 plays – and has a long-standing relationship with Sir Peter. We are talking in a small sort of anteroom at the theatre impresario Bill Kenwright's regular rehearsal rooms in west London. It's actually a church, and it's where the director is rehearsing a revival of Ayckbourn's Bedroom Farce, which opens next week at the Duke of York theatre in London. Sir Peter directed the play's premier in 1975 and has revived it several times since.

"I saw it at Scarborough when he first did it, then we did it together at the LytteltonTheatre, at the National. It's called a farce but it's not a farce. It's a very sharp-edged perceptive comedy about people's emotional lives in the 1970s.

"I admire the play excessively. I think it's one of his best plays for being funny; and yet for being true it really can't be beaten. It's a deadly serious play. That's what's funny about it."

So where would he put Ayckbourn next to Beckett and Pinter? He thinks for a while. But, of course, couldn't possibly say. "I'm very fond of all three. And I've been very lucky with all three. I don't like rating people. Alan is popular, but he's extremely perceptive, and extremely subtle in his analysis of human behaviour.

"Harold's imagination inhabits a particular and extraordinary world, a world of passions and threats and violence and a world of extraordinary comedy. I think I'd know a Pinter play if I saw it without being signed. It is very personal, very powerful and very particular. It stays with you. Actors, now they've been reassured that it's not some scary modern play that no one will understand, love it."

One of Sir Peter's bugbears is theatre subsidies. He believes that the rude health of British theatre – going so far as to say you could make a list of the 1,000 best plays ever from the output of the last 60 years – is because of subsidy. He is keen that its benefits are still recognised by politicians after the general election.

"I did the first production of Amadeus [by Peter Shaffer, at the National in 1980], for instance, and that ran for a year in the West End and for three-and-a-half years on Broadway. The West End has to know it's going to work. And that's why the link up with the subsidised theatre is so important. If it works at the National Theatre at a high level it's likely to be transferable. Like the horse play, War Horse, that's still banging along.

"I just hope whichever party gets in doesn't do something stupid. They always turn on the arts first. I don't think there'll be any street protests if they cut the subsidy to the theatre. By the time everyone's woken up it will have gone.

"I do worry about it. I don't think the theatre profession trusts, or can trust, that governments will look after the arts. As it is, the theatre business exists on underpaying people to an extraordinary extent. Actors don't get well paid, although they get overpaid if they become stars. That's market forces."

He also does a lot of work in regional theatre – he has spent every summer for the past seven years at the Theatre Royal, Bath, but this year will reopen it in September, following a major refurbishment, with a production of Sheridan's The Rivals. He is also the director of the Rose Theatre in Kingston, south-west London.

"I'm basking in this Midsummer Night's Dream at Kingston with Judi Dench. It has been the most colossal success at the box office. I still feel pleased at a success. I don't take anything for granted," he says with his usual mix of bragging and humility.

"Regional theatres are closing simply because they've cut the subsidies. They've cut money from Guildford; a whole stream of regional theatres has been cut. We have no right to expect that we'd have an Alan Ayckbourn unless we had a Scarborough theatre. If either political party kills the subsidised theatre they'll kill the whole theatre. That's the scary thing, I think."

Sir Peter will celebrate his 80th birthday in November with a production of Twelfth Night at the National Theatre, but he has no plans to quit. In fact, he'd rather like to die in a rehearsal room. "I'll fall over. I hope. I love the job. I spend most of my time in a rehearsal room. To be paid money to spend six weeks of your life in Chekhov's head is not bad. The theatre is the only place that tells the truth."

A life in the theatre

1930 Born in Bury St Edmunds

1941 Starts at Perse School in Cambridge where he becomes head boy

1954 Graduates from Cambridge University. Directs The Letter by Somerset Maugham

1955 Directs the English-language premiere of Waiting for Godot

1956 Marries his first wife, the actress Leslie Caron, with whom he has two children

1960 Founds and becomes the managing director of the Royal Shakespeare Company

1963 Created a Commander of the Order of the British Empire

1965 Directs Harold Pinter's The Homecoming; marries his second wife, Jacqueline Taylor, with whom he has two children

1973 Becomes the managing director of the National Theatre

1975 Directs Alan Ayckbourn's Bedroom Farce at the National

1977 Knighted for services to theatre

1982 Marries third wife, the soprano Maria Ewing, with whom he has a daughter, Rebecca, now an actress

1984 Artistic director, Glyndebourne

1990 Marries fourth wife, Nicola Frei

2003 Director of the Rose Theatre in Kingston

2010 Revives Bedroom Farce

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