Book Review / On and off the stage: the hope, the tease: Making an Exhibition of Myself - Peter Hall: Sinclair Stevenson 20 pounds

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The Independent Online
EVERYONE knows that the Sixties were a time of unique innovation in British theatre. But I had not realised, until I read Peter Hall's autobiography, that Sixties theatre was also a never ending festival of erotica. 'There is no good theatre,' Hall declares, 'that is not also sexual . . . To look at an attractive person is to imagine possession, and this is a feeling the stage encourages. Breasts are emphasised, legs flaunted, bottoms (particularly in the ballet) raised. Always there is the hope, the tease, of even more exposure.'

This guy should tour the schools. Theatre box offices would be packed. What a self- denying ordnance it must have been for him to direct the first British production of Waiting For Godot; just four chaps and not a breast or bottom in sight.

What is it with Sir Peter and sex? The former artistic director of Glyndebourne writes off Gilbert and Sullivan because of their 'flippancy and sexlessness'. Though his casting over the years shows a brilliant instinctive recognition of talent, the judgements he records on actresses sound like those of a Hollywood producer. Vivien Merchant is remembered for her 'wonderfully sexy and mysterious performance' and 'shapely legs'; Dorothy Tutin, Penelope Wilton, even Peggy Ashcroft, receive the inevitable epithet 'sexiness'.

There is much to detain the amateur psychologist here. Sir Peter's marriages - to the actress Leslie Caron, the diva Maria Ewing and the press officer Nicki Frei - have been the stuff of newspaper articles going back to the Fifties. But his longest marriage (over a decade) to the RSC publicist Jacqueline Taylor is covered in three pages, less space than is devoted to the opening of The Homecoming. 'Jacky remained apparently strong,' he writes. 'But the silence between us grew like a dreadful weed. She appeared not to know what was being written about me or what I was going through. She made no comment as I tried to cope with a very public purgatory. My resentment increased. I thought she didn't care; worse, I thought she was ashamed of me.'

For several hours a day Mr Hall and a group of actors in rehearsal would have been exploring every imaginable internal emotion. At home, he and Mrs Hall failed to speak. Perhaps it will take a biographer rather than an autobiographer to make sense of this.

Nevertheless, the book is compulsive stuff for anyone interested in the subsidised theatre of the last three decades. It is not only the story of Sir Peter's brilliant career; it is also a well-documented tale of crassness by government and Arts Council (though Hall's obsession that Mrs Thatcher was out to get him owes more to paranoia, and even wishful thinking, than fact).

His depression over funding matters caused him to leave the RSC far too early at the end of the Sixties, eventually to go to the NT, where he had some triumphs but also many flops. His regime lacked both the electricity and anticipation that surrounded Olivier's starry company and the bewildering consistency of Richard Eyre, who followed him.

At the RSC, though, he was magnificent, creating a house style that is still evident. These days he regrets (wrongly in my view) his textual changes and rewrites in Shakespeare's history plays. But his interpretations, with John Barton, of those works mesmerised all who saw them.

Hall remains a radical voice, brave enough to say that the free movement of directors, actors and designers between RSC and NT has caused a loss of identity in both institutions (he fails to say who started the trend); and he laments the destruction of the old Glyndebourne opera house 'without a peep from the guardians of our heritage'. His insights, off stage as well as on, are still much needed.

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