When he was in his early thirties, Peter Hall was told by a doctor that his body produced too much adrenalin. "I have consequently developed an adrenalin addiction," he says in his autobiography, Making an Exhibition of Myself. "My engine either functions at full speed," he explains, "or it stops altogether."
Well, yes, I suppose that explains why the son of a Suffolk station master, brought up in a bookless home with an outside loo, who first burst onto the stage as a spider in Little Miss Muffet, should decide, aged 15, that he was going to become a theatre director, and start while he was still at Cambridge, and get his first paid work three weeks after he completed (just) his degree, and go on to run the RSC and the National Theatre, and continue directing plays for the next 55 years, rarely pausing even for a holiday, and continue even now when he's approaching his 79th birthday. I suppose that explains why I have to meet him, in the south London community hall that he uses for rehearsals, in his lunch-break. And I suppose that explains the extraordinary, phenomenal, exhausting drive that has made him probably the most influential person in British theatre in the 20th century, a man Judi Dench describes as "indomitable" and David Hare as "Rabelaisian" and the actor Richard Johnson, who worked with him in the early days of the RSC, as "a force of nature". A medical malfunction. Of course.
Peter Hall roars with laughter. "Yes, OK," he says, when I suggest that this explanation might be just a tiny little bit too convenient, "I think I'm with you. Yes. The thing I know about adrenalin is that I can't work unless it's there. The moment it leaves me, when I finish a rehearsal is just hell, and it still is. Because the adrenalin drops and your energy level drops, and you don't feel very good about any of it. That's why I was eating lustily," he explains, pointing at a tray of sandwiches, "when you arrived."
Lustily. Yup, that seems like the right word. It goes with the "Rabelaisian" and the shiny leather jacket and perhaps the softest, most sensual lips – embedded in a large, fleshy face – I've ever seen on a human male. "I believe there is no good theatre that is not also sexual," Hall also says in his autobiography. Meeting him, you believe it. This, you feel, is not a man, like the late laureate John Betjeman, who will go to his death bed wishing he'd had more sex. Even pushing 80, he exudes sexual energy. "He's been married four times, you know," Johnson told me at a lunch a few weeks ago. "His wife is 30 years younger than him." "And how many times have you been married?" I asked Johnson, who once turned down the role of James Bond. "Four," he said. "And what's the age gap with your wife?" I ask. "Thirty years," he replied.
Hall is thrilled by the symmetry when I point it out. "Oh, Richard's an old friend!" Both men had early marriages – the kind the media like to call "tumultuous" – to Hollywood stars, Hall to Leslie Caron and Johnson to Kim Novak, and both have found late domestic bliss with much younger partners. As you do."If you have an obsession to do something," says Hall, "it's very hard to modulate it. If you want to be a director, you'll direct night, day, any time and you'll work and work and never mind the other person. Nicki [his wife of 20 years] is very wise, very brilliant. The only thing about Nicki that's slightly on my conscience is that I feel that the kind of life that I lead has enabled her to pour most of her energy into looking after me."
Funny that. But luckily she doesn't mind ("she says 'rubbish', get on with it") and you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, and perhaps you can't have a successful marriage if both people are consumed by their work to the point of being – well, ruthless. Because there is a ruthlessness there, isn't there, I venture, and on the whole the people close to you pay the price for it. Don't they? "They do," says Hall quietly. And, of course, in this great omelette fines herbes of a life, washed down, one feels, with some very fine wine, the smashed eggs have produced some rather splendid results, in the form of six magnificent children. Which perhaps exonerates him in a rather unfair way, doesn't it?
"I hope it does," says Hall. "I don't know. I couldn't have had it otherwise with the children. They've developed into extraordinary people doing extraordinary things. I can say to you, without any conceit, that I think Edward is one of the best directors in the country, and that," he says, his voice breaking, and his eyes welling up with tears,"makes me cry. And I know that Rebecca is going to be – is – a great actress. And they'll be very demanding in their turn, and are."
Peter Hall certainly knows a thing or two about being demanding, and so do the people who have worked with him. "He can't put up with laziness, foolishness, lack of commitment," Johnson told me. "He can be really, really tough." But that, you could argue, is the quality necessary to produce great work. It's the quality, presumably, that had him directing ground-breaking productions of Cymbeline (with Peggy Ashcroft) and Coriolanus (with Laurence Olivier) and A Midsummer Night's Dream (with Charles Laughton) within a few years of leaving Cambridge, and founding the Royal Shakespeare Company when he was just 29, and not just accepting the job, but enumerating, in minute detail, the terms, and then running, for 15 years, the National Theatre and transforming it, in his words, from "a small unit which did four plays a year to a three-theatre combination with 700 people working for you and 19 or 20 productions a year".
It's the quality that had him, in Pinter's words, defying "the builders and the gods and Mrs Thatcher" in getting the National up and running, and keeping it up and running, and the quality that had him, in times of union strife, sacking backstage staff. Rarely, almost uniquely in British theatre, Peter Hall is as gifted an administrator, ambassador, fund-raiser, committee-runner, manager and politician as he is an artist. His days at the National would start at 5.30am and finish late at night. That, I think we can all agree, is tough.
But if there was plenty of perspiration – plenty of sheer hard graft – there was plenty of inspiration, and stardust, too. In 1955, when he was just 24, he directed the first English-language production of Waiting for Godot. He became, he says in his autobiography, a "little bit famous", was photographed by Tony Armstrong-Jones and interviewed by Vogue. Tennessee Williams saw the play and got in touch. So did a young playwright called Harold Pinter. Landmark productions of some of the greatest plays of the 20th century followed. But did they feel like landmarks at the time?
"Oh no!" says Hall. "Nothing feels like them. They become icons and they're not." Since that first, tentative staging of Beckett's masterpiece (slated, until a review in the Sunday Times rescued it) he has directed the play four times. "People always say 'how is it different?'" says Hall, "and I always say I have absolutely no idea. No idea at all. I haven't any means of knowing, because I can't look at the previous one. And if I could, I wouldn't." But does he, after more than 50 years, have any different feeling about the play? "Yes," he says. "I've realised how tragic the play's heart is. It's comic, it's funny, it's full of the life force, it's full of hope, but nothing is achieved."
It's hard, perhaps, to think of a greater horror for a man like Peter Hall, but if he can't exactly identify with this inertia, he can certainly testify to a bit of Beckettian bleakness. Several times in his life, he has seriously contemplated suicide. On one occasion, Peter Brook turned up at his bedside from Paris and commanded him, à la Lazarus, to get out of bed. Hall did, and directed his epic truncation of Shakespeare's history plays, The Wars of the Roses. "I learnt," he says in his autobiography, that "there is never a good time to do your best or most demanding work. You don't have to be happy; you don't even have to be well."
The bleakness, luckily, has always been fleeting, and swiftly superseded by this manic energy that may, after all, be a way of warding off the void, warding off death. "You need that energy, and you need that joy," says Hall, "to counteract what else you've got to deal with. Otherwise, there's no point in going on." It has also been leavened by romance (after Leslie Caron, he married his assistant, Jacky Taylor and then the opera singer, Maria Ewing before meeting Nicki Frei, a publicity officer at Riverside Studios), his children, and, of course, an endless stream of artistic challenges. A lover of music since learning the piano at six, he is as happy directing operas as plays. During stints as artistic director of Glyndebourne, and the Royal Opera House (and on holidays/sabbaticals from the National that proved rather controversial) he directed more than 50 operas. "I was an organist as a young man at the local church," he volunteers, "and I can read the score. I always think, as far as opera is concerned, that my musical credentials allow me entrance."
After leaving the National, in 1988, he formed the Peter Hall Company, launched with productions of Orpheus Descending (with Vanessa Redgrave) and The Merchant of Venice (with Dustin Hoffman) and which has now performed all over the world. Since 2003, he has done a Peter Hall summer season at the Theatre Royal Bath. This year's programme includes plays by Terence Rattigan, Chekhov, David Storey, Michael Frayn, Peter Gill and George Bernard Shaw. The usual eclectic Hall mix, then. The Shaw offering, The Apple Cart is rarely performed and, on a quick read, rather dull. Hall is, however, passionate about what he sees as its presience. "Takeovers, big financial crashes, democracy being questioned. It's fascinating. There's even a moment when they say that the Cabinet is not really up to scratch because there are too many Scotsmen in it..."
Nearly 15 years after most men have retired, Peter Hall is still fighting, still working, still rehearsing every day. If he has had to accept a rare defeat – the inability to raise money for a proper artistic programme at Kingston's new Rose Theatre, a venue he'd hoped would become his artistic home – he is still directing plays he has never directed before, still has "a big list" of plays he wants to do. He is still charming, still passionate, still perfectionist – and still, I think, ruthless. Reviews are a little more mixed these days. Does he ever worry that he's not as good as he used to be? Peter Hall fixes me with a steely gaze. "No," he says calmly. "Because I know I am."
The Peter Hall season takes place at Theatre Royal, Bath, 25 June to 29 August (01225 448844; www.theatreroyal.org.uk)
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies