Sunday, 17 September 2017

Britain was once a country which made and has now lost its old and greatest Impresario and Theatre Director, Peter Hall

Peter, who has died at the age of 86, grew up in a post Second World War Britain which gave him a unique opportunity to demonstrate his theatrical genius. As a teenager "hungry for art. Avid for culture," standing at the back of the wartime theatres in London and Cambridge for sixpence, he loved what he saw and recalled that : "At about 14, I thought I knew what I wanted to do - be a director." As an undergraduate at Cambridge in the 1950s he identified that there was "A post-War vacuum in the directing field. No question. there was a hole." Peter, subsequently, more than helped to fill it.

He was born at Number 24 Avenue Approach, Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, in a bay windowed, red bricked, two bedroomed, terraced under a slate roof on 22 November 1930. He was the son of Grace, who worked in a haberdashers and Reg who was a clerk in the local station goods depot and after his promotion to 'stationmaster', the family relocated to rural Barnham in Suffolk and later to Cambridge and then Shelford, outside the city. Peter later over- embroidered his working class childhood when he said : "People always giggle when I say that I grew up on a single-line railway station with a pump outside, no running water, no electricity, oil lamps, but in the 30s that's the way it was."

Peter remember his father as : "one of the wisest, nicest, least ambitious men I've ever met," but it was clear that the driving force in the family came from his mother and her conviction that Peter's route to betterment would be through a good education. He remembered her as “hugely ambitious” and in “a state of permanent fury” at his father, with his "sunny, controlled temperament and no ambition at all.” It is difficult to judge his attitude towards his mother when, in his  autobiography, he said that she "had a distinct aura of piss-elegance," which in old parlance meant that she 'put on airs and graces.' No doubt she was anxious to disguise the fact that she was a shop worker, her father had worked as a pork butcher and Reg's father as a rat catcher on Queen Victoria’s Norfolk estate.

Peter recalled that in his early years : "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."

He was 9 years old when the Second World War broke out and living in Cambridge where he attended : "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."

Reg and Grace recognised and encouraged his precocious talent and he recalled : “They encouraged me to be different and from the age of eight I was conscious I was different and would escape.” At his request on his 10th birthday, they took him to a performance of Mozart's Requiem in King's College, Cambridge. Nearly seventy years later he recalled that it was in the same year that he "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."

Peter's 'ancient grammar' with its hammer beamed hall, founded in the 17th century with its motto 'Qui facit per alium facit per se' usually taken to mean "He who does things for others does them for himself," fed him with inventive ways to explore literature and drama and he and he recalled : "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." He later said that : "It never occurred to me not to love Shakespeare. He was thrilling and blood-soaked and full of witches."


By the time he left school in 1948 Peter had : played his Hamlet, become head boy, learned the art of public speaking, edited the school magazine, made it into the tennis team had become an accomplished organist and pianist and during the War and showed he had an impresario’s touch when he led a band that played village halls around Cambridge in aid of the
Red Cross.
It was, however, Peter's extra-curricular activities which cemented his ambition when : "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." He was ideally placed because the evacuation of the theatre community from Blitz-bombed London meant : "There was an absolute welter of plays, concerts and recitals and I was there with my pocket money and newspaper round, imbibing them."

One of the perks of his Father's position as the master at Whittlesford Station in the London and Midland Region meant Peter could travel by rail free of charge and in addition to taking himself off to stay, in the school holidays, with an Aunt in Lewisham, South London, he also availed himself of the opportunity to visit theatres in the West End. In 1944 the Governors of the Old Vic had successfully approached the Royal Navy to secure the release of Richardson and Olivier and as a result he : "Saw Richardson's Vanya, Falstaff and Cyrano, Olivier's Richard III, Hotspur and Astrov and Peggy Ashcroft as the Duchess of Malfi. It was still wartime and there was the danger of bombs, sometimes buzz-bombs or V2s. Nobody seemed to take any notice." The Times thought the Vanya was "the perfect compound of absurdity and pathos," the Astrov "a most distinguished portrait" and in Richard III, according to Billington, Olivier's triumph was absolute : "so much so, that it became his most frequently imitated performance and one whose supremacy went unchallenged until Antony Sher played the role forty years later."

Still only 15 in 1946 on a school trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, he was enchanted by the 21-year-old Peter Brook’s production of 'Love’s Labour’s Lost' and it made him decide he would like, one day, to run the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre himself.

In 1948 at the age of 18 he won an 'exhibition' and a county scholarship to read English at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, but was first called up for two years National Service as an aircraftman at West Kirby, Warwickshire, from whence he was posted to Germany, to teach economic and business management to RAF veterans in B├╝ckerburg. During his stay there he was impressed, when he saw first-hand evidence of the civic impact of arts subsidy. Perhaps, more importantly, at less than 20, having fallen in love with a "porcelain-faced member of the WRAF" he got himself engaged to be married and "I forced myself to think that a career in the theatre would not be wise for a young man about to marry, I resolved to become a teacher and settle down." 

Peter's engagement explains why, during his subsequent first two years at Cambridge, he held back, apart from the occasional acting stint and studied hard. He took on board the primacy of Shakespearean verse-speaking over scenic decoration recommended by the eminent don, George “Dadie” Rylands and, in addition, from FR Leavis he learned the importance of textual rigour and the moral power of art.

In his third year at Cambridge he blossomed. As a back-up, just in case his Forces romance foundered, which it duly did, he had secretly booked a theatre and chose Jean Anouilh's 'Points of Departure', an updating of the Orpheus legend, for his directorial debut at the ADC and recalled : "I do remember an almost physical sense of release and pleasure rehearsing a play. I thought this is what I want to do." In the cast as a fresher, Joan Rowlands, who was later better known as the journalist, Joan Bakewell, who said : "I remember him being very unobtrusive but yet very present. He didn't go for great expositions of Anouilh and his place in French culture or in drama or anything like that. He was very practical." 

He followed this with John Whiting's bleak and pessimistic 'Saint's Day', which was reviewed in the Daily Telegraph as : "Excellently handled by Peter Hall" who was complimented by the fact that the cast "play together like a team." At this point Peter, more or less abandoned his studies and threw himself into further productions of 'Uncle Vanya' and 'Love's Labour's Lost.' John Barton recalled that in a joint production of 'Romeo and Juliet' he undertook with Peter they had "Churchill sitting in the front row of the stalls with a copy of the first folio, glowering at us."

Peter relished the joy at being in a rehearsal room, making discoveries about a play-text and the exhilaration of  : “The actors, the director and everyone concerned take strength from each other and by working together, make themselves better, more perceptive and more talented than any of them knew they had it in them to be.”

Two weeks after graduating in 1953, and having directed more than 20 student productions, many of them for the Marlowe Society, he made his professional debut at the Theatre Royal, Windsor in 1953, directing Somerset Maugham's 'The Letter.' Then his undergraduate production of Pirandello’s 'Henry IV' was given a two-week London run at the Arts Theatre in London and subsequently he quickly made his name with productions of Lorca’s 'Blood Wedding' and Gide’s 'The Immoralist.' At the age of 24 he was offered the directorship of the Arts and so found himself running his own London theatre.

Eight months later came a key event in Peter's career: his own production of an experimental play written in French and then translated into English by an obscure Irish writer named Samuel Beckett. called 'Waiting for Godot.' At the time he didn't fully understand the significance of the play : "I remember it was highly original because of the idea of waiting as a metaphor of life. And I thought it was terribly funny and well written and had a marvellous rhythm to it. But I didn't say to myself : 'This is the epoch-changing play of the mid-century.' I simply thought: 'What a wonderful thing to do in a slack August'."

It established Beckett as a major playwright and Peter, alongside Peter Brook, as the most enterprising of a young generation of directors. The following year he sealed he secured his place at the theatre's top table by marrying the film actress Leslie Caron who in a memoir described him as : “tall, handsome, brilliant, charming, ambitious and beguiling.” 

Interviewed by Vogue and appearing on Panorama, the boy from the two-bedroomed terraced house in Bury St. Edmunds, educated in a war-torn and austerity-wracked post-war Britain had arrived.

Peter once said :
"I see my role as an interpreter. My job is to try to find out what the writer meant and then to try to find a means of conveying what he meant in terms that mean something to our audience. I don't believe in walking into a rehearsal room, saying 'here is the concept and we are going to force everything into it.' That is anti-creative and anti-art."

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