Peter Hall and Shakespeare

Sir Peter Hall

On 15 September 2017 theatres in the West End of London and on Broadway will dim their lights in memory of Sir Peter Hall whose death, aged 86, was announced on 12 September. This has become a recognised tribute to the great in the world of theatre, and nobody is more worthy of it than he. The theatre, especially the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, would today be completely different without his powerful influence.

At the age of only 29 Peter Hall was appointed to run the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he was already working as a director. His appointment must have come as something of a surprise since his reputation had been made by directing modern plays. It followed years under the leadership of Anthony Quayle, a distinguished actor and director who used his many connections to woo the biggest names in the London theatre to the Warwickshire playhouse. Glamorous actors such as Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud and Michael Redgrave, sumptuous settings and costumes, ensure that we look back on the 1950s as a bit of a golden age. Quayle’s years were successful, particularly in raising  the profile of the Stratford theatre, but there was an acceptance that it could not last.

Peter Hall around 1960

He shocked traditionalists, setting about changing everything. Gone were the stars, or at least most of them, and in came young actors, directors and designers. He rightly claimed that these young, talented artists would themselves become stars, and he brought in three-year contracts that gave them some stability. Among them were Peter O’Toole, Ian Richardson and Ian Holm.

He gave the theatre a forward-looking name: the Royal Shakespeare Theatre instead of Shakespeare Memorial Theatre and introduced changes that must have changed the experience of playgoing for audiences. He took away the velvet curtain and painted over the fire curtain that featured a scene of Shakespeare standing in the Warwickshire countryside.  After a couple of uncertain years Hall came up with the production that would define the fledgling RSC: The Wars of the Roses. Working with John Barton the three Henry VI plays (considered virtually unplayable) were conflated into two and with Richard III were played as a trilogy that could be seen in a day. The plays were performed on a single set designed by John Bury, with no decorative flourishes, and costumes that were similarly bold, but not sumptuous. Although young actors took many of the main roles Hall had not parted with all of them, notably Peggy Ashcroft, a past Cleopatra and Rosalind who played Queen Margaret in all three parts.  It was a triumph.

David Warner as Hamlet with the signature red scarf

The Wars of the Roses looked historical, if not conventional. It was another production, in 1965, that announced to the world that Shakespeare at Stratford was modern. The young, gangly and not very heroic-looking David Warner was cast as Hamlet. He had already appeared as Henry VI in the Wars of the Roses. While the older generation wore conventional costumes, Warner’s Hamlet wore a costume accessory that immediately connected him to teenagers: a long red knitted scarf. Teenagers knitted their own red scarves and wore them to performances, and many theatre aficionados now in their sixties and seventies date their love of Shakespeare to attending either The Wars of the Roses or Hamlet.

Hall developed the idea of the Stratford company having a permanent London home to house transfers as well as modern plays. Shakespeare was treated as a political writer as relevant as any contemporary author. Hall wrote about the Henry VI plays “We are forced to experience the passionate responsibility of mother to son, of king to country, of people to king, of blood to blood.” These dynamic changes transformed the RSC in just a few years, attracting a younger, politically-aware audience.

Tributes to Sir Peter Hall have been written by everybody in the world of the arts. If you have missed it, an edition of BBC Radio 4’s Front Row included interviews with many distinguished people including the man who followed him in running the RSC, Trevor Nunn. This link is to a BBC 4 documentary Sir Peter Hall Remembered.

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