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Sir Peter Hall: A peculiarly British genius

BONNIE GREER on the late Sir Peter Hall, a man who revolutionised English-speaking theatre

Peter Hall called his memoir Making An Exhibition Of Myself, a phrase his mother would hurl at him from time to time. An only child, and the grandson of Queen Victoria’s ratcatcher, he was born in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, a working class lad with a ferocious work ethic. And, on top of that, he needed to keep at bay his depression, the ‘black dog’ that plagued Churchill and many of his fellow greats.

Ambitious and clever, he a won a scholarship to The Perse School, in nearby Cambridge, and then went up to Cambridge University where he played piano exquisitely and staged plays. As many as he could.

The London critics came and noticed him. He came down to London and took over as artistic director of the Arts Theatre. Then Samuel Becket came into his life.

Hall was 24.

En attendant Godot, a play Becket never stopped revising, was written between October 9, 1948 and January 29, 1949. Its stage premiere was on January 5, 1953 in the Théâtre de Babylone, Paris. Beckett explained to one and all that the play had no meaning that he himself could ascertain. ‘Sam’ translated it and gave it to Hall.

Hall told his actors that he, too, had no idea what the play was about. But full steam ahead.

Legend has it that on opening night, August 3, 1955, the audience hostility came over the footlights in waves. The majority of critics loathed it, but two influential ones didn’t and Hall’s reputation was made. At 24, the ratcatcher’s grandson had quite simply revolutionised the English-speaking theatre.

By 1960 the 29-year-old Hall formally took charge at Stratford-upon-Avon and set about turning a star-laden, six-month Shakespeare festival into a monumental, year-round operation built around a permanent company.

He became a champion of public subsidy for the arts. He never stopped fighting. His reverence for playwrights and the integrity of the script, especially the work of Pinter, was legendary.

Hall directed operas and musicals. He built two institutions: the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre, after the departure of Olivier. He gave Pinter his career and revived Tennessee Williams. His range extended from Godot to As You Like It to Amadeus. He was an Englishman who took an existentialist French play written by an Irish linguist and made it universal.

The first time that I ever heard the word ‘dogsbody’ was in reference to Hall. Not about him – the term referred to an assistant director who worked for him at the National.

If you were a playwright, an actor, or a director, you just wanted him to see you. That’s all.

He was a titan and put Great Britain in the middle of Europe and America, too. Everyone wanted to do British theatre. It was international without being diluted. Dirty, dangerous; English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish.

It was Peter Hall directing Vanessa Redgrave speaking in a dodgy accent on the Broadway stage and being an absolute genius. Sir Peter Hall understood, very young, that the theatre happens inside of you. And can happen anywhere. This is a peculiarly British genius.

He was born knowing it.