Hall, Barton and Goodwin: three grand old men of the RSC

Peter Hall as he was when taking over the RSC, circa 1961

At the end of August it begins to feel that summer is coming to a close and autumn is on its way. While this can feel like the time when things start to close down for winter, for many people it’s a time of renewed energy. That’s certainly my hope as during this summer I’ve found it impossible to concentrate on the Shakespeare blog, owing to the combination of sweltering temperatures and a building project that has taken twice the time originally intended. Being without a kitchen for a full two months, having running water only in the bathroom, has made me appreciate the convenience of modern kitchens and plumbing. Having to carry every drop of water for cooking, washing up and watering the garden has certainly made me aware of the difficulties that faced our Elizabethan ancestors. More regular posts will, I hope, resume in October.

Over the summer there has certainly been no shortage of Shakespearean action, but most of it has passed me by. In the last couple of weeks though a series of bits have news have emerged to remind me of some of the outstanding people in the Shakespeare world who have died.

Foremost of these is the great theatre director Peter Hall, who died in 2017, and has been described as ‘the undoubted architect of the entire edifice of modern theatre’. His last great project was the running of the Rose Theatre in Kingston-upon-Thames, and such were his outstanding achievements that the conference being held there on 8 September 2018 quickly sold out. The same conference also celebrates the life and work of theatre director John Barton, who Hall invited to work at the Royal Shakespeare Company when he was first appointed in the early 1960s. Barton died earlier this year having spent over 50 years working closely with the company in Stratford-upon-Avon. Those contributing on the day include actors Michael Pennington, Janet Suzman, Andrew Jarvis and Judi Dench, director Trevor Nunn and a host of leading academics.

The tree planted for John Barton, outside the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, 2018

The conference is followed by a service of thanksgiving for the life of Peter Hall in Westminster Abbey at noon on 11 September 2018, exactly a year since he died. Tickets for this event were also taken up very quickly. John Barton’s life was celebrated earlier this year by the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon, and a tree in his memory has now been planted near the entrance to the Swan Theatre. Barton never sought the limelight for himself, and it’s appropriate that this modest memorial has been dedicated to him.

Peter Hall’s success depended on the help of a great many people. John Barton is an outstanding example, but among the others was another man who died this week. John Goodwin was Hall’s press officer while he was at the RSC and joined him at the National Theatre, editing Peter Hall’s diaries for publication in 1983 and remaining a lifelong friend. I began caring for the RSC’s archives after Goodwin had left the Company, but his reputation for toughness endured. During its early years the RSC had to fight to establish itself and Goodwin played a significant role in its success. In the Guardian obituary Michael White comments,

Short of money and under frequent attack from politicians, the press and sections of the profession, Johnny proved a highly effective operator. A master of the well-judged defence and judicious leak, he helped consolidate public support for the “subsidised” theatre against complaints of unfair competition from the commercial West End.

These three grand old men promoted the cause of Shakespeare onstage in his own town. In their own ways, each helped to make the RSC the phenomenon it has become, established and famous around the world, keeping Shakespeare’s work alive in the theatre.

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