How the world became Peter Hall's stage

Past and present clash in Los Angeles. On a down-at-heel corner of Hollywood Boulevard a sub-standard Elvis slouches over a fag with a less-than-magnetic Marilyn. Beyond them stretch the pavement stars embedded in the Street of Fame, many celebrating names long forgotten. But at the end of the street is the magnificently restored Pantages Theatre, all gilded Art Deco and gleaming statuary. In screen city, Disney’s theatrical triumph, The Lion King, is playing here to packed houses of almost three thousand a night. This is not, one is constantly reminded, a theatre town, but live performance is being rediscovered and Peter Hall “the famous British director” is part of the scene. He is about to open a production of Romeo and Juliet at the Ahmanson Theatre in Downtown LA while next door there will be a revival of his production of The Marriage of Figaro, a fact he discovered when listening to the radio one day.

He has spent most of the last three years in the States, including six months of 2000 in Denver to direct (with his son, Edward) John Barton’s epic, ten-play saga about the Trojan war, Tantalus, which is now playing at the Lowry in Salford, Manchester. He is pleased to say that when he looked in on the final day-long Denver performance he enjoyed what he saw. “I had to give scarcely any notes. Good things get better; bad ones get worse very quickly”. He will not be at the Lowry for the British press night, however, being preoccupied in LA, although he will be in London for the first night of the new Simon Gray play, Japes, which he directed for its original opening in Colchester, and he will catch Tantalus in Nottingham.

At 70, a bulky man who bluntly says, “However you look at it, there can’t be much time left”, he allows himself precious little respite from work. After two weeks in England, he’ll be off to direct Troilus and Cressida in New York, then there will be productions of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Verdi’s Otello at Glyndebourne, Otello in Chicago and more Shakespeare -- Lear and another play -- at the Ahmanson late in the year. He likes to have his schedule worked out well in advance: he prepares over a long period, reading and re-reading texts and allowing ideas to come into his head at odd moments of the day and night.

Nobody walks in L A. The Ahmanson Theatre’s rehearsal room, once the city’s morgue, is a mere few blocks from Hall’s Downtown hotel, but every morning a car arrives promptly at nine to collect him. It’s a measure of the respect, bordering on veneration, with which he is regarded by the American theatre community that his driver for several weeks has been a professor of design. Trish Rigdon, who teaches at Rice University in Texas, had been a mature student on Sir Peter’s directing course at Houston and simply valued the opportunity to talk. The visiting professorship in Texas is another string to his American bow.

The rehearsal process in LA is surprisingly relaxed. On a Saturday two weeks before opening night Mercutio (Jesse Borrego) and composer Karl Lundeberg have their small daughters in tow. “I encourage them”, says Sir Peter later, “It brings a touch of real life”. Set in the late eighteenth century, the production has more than a touch of real life already, reflecting the cultural mix of California. “It has a Spanish/Mexican feel, with the Capulets very white, ghettoised, and everyone else racially mixed.”

A good deal of work has been done on verse-speaking and everyone seems to be enjoying chewing over meaning and emphasis, getting the most out of every innuendo. “I love this stuff!” enthuses DB Woodside, the tall, black and handsome Romeo. He makes a fervent, quick-witted lover, while his Juliet, Lynn Collins -- playful, physically expressive, beautiful and intelligent -- is undoubtedly destined to be a star. She is only 23, but Peter Hall has sought her out for the role, having auditioned her for Tantalus and lost her then (on her agent’s advice) to the pull of L A ‘s more traditional business.

At the end of a long day, we repair to one of the best restaurants in this part of town. Hall enjoys his food, especially oysters, and the meal is delicious. Would he ever think of being based in the States? “I’d rather not. Emma [his daughter by his fourth wife, Nicki] is only eight and there are all the other children and five grandchildren”. He seems to be on excellent terms with them all: “It comes of being an only child”. He has particularly relished working with Edward, his second son, on Tantalus. “ We regularly went into each other’s rehearsals. He came into mine one day and said, ‘That’s great, but I knew you’d do that. You’ve done it before’. You need that sort of honesty. Of course, I then did it quite differently.”

From the huge canvas of Tantalus he went to the three-hander, single-set Japes. “They do have something in common -- a theatricality”. This he defines as the audience being required to imagine along with the actors, to share a suspension of disbelief. And hubris? Both, on different levels, are about human beings who assume too much about themselves and their power, who challenge the gods. “Yes, that too”.

Japes is, Hall says, an indictment of the attitudes of the “reckless” 60s. Two of his six children, Rebecca, 18 and up at Cambridge, and 33-year-old Lucy, a designer, have seen it and agree with him that it is an important play. Two brothers, Michael (Toby Stephens) and Jason (Japes, Jasper Britton), share a girlfriend and are unsure which is the father of her daughter. Their relationship develops over 30 years, culminating in the daughter’s bewildered and sour reaction to her upbringing. “It’s not vengeance, it’s a protest. Michael’s generation can’t understand why the young have turned out the way they have. Only some of the young, of course; it isn’t a reactionary play. As usual Simon [Gray] undermines hypocrisy and double standards with comedy”. Language is shown to be shifting, unreliable from the first scene. “We like to think it’s an absolute and it’s not; it’s full of contradiction and ambiguity.”

John Barton’s language in his retelling of the myths of the Trojan War is accessible and modern. Hall has found that it works particularly well with masks. There are no direct quotations from the many Greek sources, including Euripides, Sophocles, Aeschylus and Homer, except for the occasional oracle in the original Greek. Barton likens it all to soap opera, the story of the ultimate dysfunctional family. The title is taken from the myth of Tantalus, grandfather of Agamemnon, supreme commander of the Greeks in the Trojan War, who is condemned by the gods to live under a rock which may fall at any moment. Water and delicious fruits constantly move just beyond his reach. For Barton, this is an ironical metaphor for the human condition. Hall says that myths are never old-fashioned. “The Trojan horse is a metaphor for infiltration and betrayal in all European languages and most people have heard of Helen of Troy. These are archetypes; each age renews them.”

Sadness crosses his face twice during our conversation. His much reported split with John Barton, who spent nearly two decades writing Tantalus and who disagreed with Hall’s treatment of his material, still causes pain. They had been friends for 50 years; a new play by the young John Barton featured in Hall’s first directing season at Cambridge when they were students. Now he fears they may never be reconciled. “I did nothing I wasn’t required by my contract to do. I’m very distressed that he’s distressed.”

Mention of the Old Vic, home to his company for a short period in 1999, but for which funding was not forthcoming, also causes a shadow to fall. He is scathing about New Labour, about politicians in general for their lack of support of the arts: ”There are no votes in the arts, so they don’t do anything.” It’s a familiar theme of his. But then, he says something very positive: “I think theatre is going to be very important during the next 50 years. It is unique. Look at The Lion King. Pure theatre. The camera sees what it sees. The theatre will be part of the personalising side of life.”


©Heather Neill – originally published in The Independent, Jan 2001