Peter Hall (born 1930) is an award-winning British theatrical director and manager with an impressive list of credits. Over the course of a 50-year career, Hall became one of the world's most renowned directors, received major theatrical awards—including two Antoinette Perry or "Tony" awards—and achieved knighthood. Managing major British theatrical companies before forming his own highly acclaimed company, Hall has directed the production of over 150 plays, operas, and films. Even though his Shakespearean productions are most highly regarded, he exerted enormous influence and impact by introducing the world to the finest examples of modern drama.
The man who would become an internationally renowned director rose from a humble beginning. Peter Reginald Frederick Hall was born on November 22, 1930, in a working-class neighborhood in Bury Saint Edmonds, Suffolk, England. The only child of Grace and Reginald Hall, he grew up in a modest row house that sat among other workers' dwellings. Hall recalled his parents as very loving and despite his family's working-class status he never felt deprived. Reginald Hall, a genial man who enjoyed gardening and liked to grow the family's food, worked as a clerk in a railway station. In his autobiography Making an Exhibition of Myself, Hall described his father as a "kind man who did not know the meaning of the word cruelty." Grace Hall had a more forceful nature, and Hall characterized his mother as a "genial and quick-witted woman" but something of a "tempest."
Showed Early Ambition, Interests
Hall himself displayed a rather exuberant personality. He recalled that even as a child he tended to be a risk taker and overachiever. This disposition often made his mother anxious, and Hall enjoyed provoking her anxieties and ire. Very much a "Suffolk country woman," Grace Hall responded to her son's antics with cautionary or comforting aphorisms. At the same time, she appreciated her son's character and proved to be an enormous influence in his early life. She had great ambitions for him and made him feel special.
Hall's early interests and ambitions were directed toward the arts, and one of the defining moments in his early life occurred when he saw renowned actor Sir John Gielgud on stage performing William Shakespeare's Hamlet in Cambridge. Writing a tribute to Gielgud following the great actor's death in 2000, Hall recalled of that time: "I felt I knew him already, as one does with God." He found an outlet for this newfound interest in the dramatic arts in school. After attending Perse School and then St. Catharine's College, Cambridge, Hall earned his M.A. at Cambridge University in 1953. While at the university, he produced and acted in more than 20 amateur productions, then entered the professional theater.
Hall's industrious nature and enthusiasm for risk-taking was evidenced by his career achievements. While he respected the classics and staged productions of many of Shakespeare's plays, he also took chances on contemporary drama. Hall helped introduce theatregoers around the world to the plays of Howard Pinter, making Pinter one of Britain's most acclaimed post-World War II playwrights. In all, Hall's credits include more than 80 professional stage productions. However, he also directed opera, television programs, and motion pictures. When his career led him to the United States, he conquered Broadway by staging two enormously successful productions—The Homecoming and Amadeus—both of which garnered him Tony awards.
At the start of his professional career, Hall worked in repertory and for the Arts Council in England. As newly appointed artistic director of the Elizabethan Theatre Company, he directed his first professional production in 1953, at the Theatre Royal in Windsor. A year later he joined the Arts Theatre in London, first working as an assistant director and then director. Between 1954 and 1956 he staged The Lesson, the first play by existential playwright Eugene Ionesco to be performed in England. Hall also directed the premieres of two historically important plays: the English-language premiere of Waiting for Godot, an absurdist tragicomedy by Samuel Beckett, and the London premiere of The Waltz of the Toreadors, by Jean Anouilh. Hall was only 24 years old when he introduced Beckett's work to the world.
In 1956 Hall staged his first production at the Shakespeare Memorial Theater at Stratford-upon-Avon. The following year he formed his own company, the International Playwrights' Theatre, but returned to Stratford to stage Cymberline with Peggy Ashcroft (1957), Coriolanus with Laurence Olivier (1958), and A Midsummer Night's Dream with Charles Laughton.
Formed Royal Shakespeare Company
In 1960 Hall was named director of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, which had been built in 1932 to showcase the Bard's works. During his first year there Hall redesigned the stage and renamed the building the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. He also formed the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and established its home at the Aldwych Theatre in London. Hall expanded the company's repertoire to include both Shakespearean works and modern drama. The company performed at both theaters, and Hall set about developing a distinctive style for types of drama. "The tension between the utterly contemporary and the classical has always been the main spring of my work," Hall later wrote. "It informed my time at the Royal Shakespeare Company and at the Royal National Theatre. It has guided me from Waiting to Godot to King Lear and back again via [the opera] Der Ring des Nibelungen." His innovative Shakespearean productions helped redefine plays such as Hamlet—with the "melancholy Dane" portrayed by the young David Warner—and Twelfth Night for a new generation of theatergoers.
For the RSC, Hall directed 18 plays at the Stratford theater. His most significant production was The War of the Roses, a seven-play history cycle. At the Aldwych Theatre he staged world premiere performances of plays by John Whiting and Edward Albee, the latter who went on to win Pulitzer prizes and Tony awards for such plays as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and A Delicate Balance. Hall's best-known productions at the Aldwych included the London premiere of Anouilh's Becket in 1962 and the 1965 opening of Pinter's The Homecoming.
Hall served as managing director of the RSC's theaters until 1968, sharing directorial duties with other accomplished directors, including Peter Brook, Paul Scofield, and Michel Saint-Denis. After his resignation, Hall continued directing plays for the company. In addition, from 1969 to 1971 he was director of the Covent Garden Opera.
Headed Royal National Theatre
In 1973 Hall became managing director of the Royal National Theatre in London, succeeding Lawrence Olivier, who founded the organization. At first Hall staged plays at the Old Vic Theatre, which throughout its 150-plus-year history had included as part of its company such actors as Oliver, Ashcroft, Gielgud, and Sir Ralph Richardson. In 1976 Hall moved the National Theatre company from the Old Vic to a new home on London's South Bank.
Hall held the post of managing director at the National for 15 years, during which time he continued to develop a recognizable style for classical and modern drama. His productions included the 1975 premiere of Pinter's No Man's Land and the 1979 premiere of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus. Other notable productions included Volpone, the classic play by Ben Jonson; The Oresteia, the Greek trilogy by Aeschylus; Animal Farm, a dramatic adaptation of George Orwell's novel; and Betrayal, by Pinter, as well as Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, Hamlet, The Tempest, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale. In his cast he included established and rising actors such as Albert Finney, Judi Dench, and Anthony Hopkins.
In 1983 Hall published Peter Hall's Diaries: The Story of a Dramatic Battle, in which he recounts his time at the Royal National Theatre. He resigned from the theatre in 1988, noting in an interview with the London Evening Standard: "I've been lucky. I spent 25 years of my life at the RSC and the National. I made one of them and certainly had quite a big hand in the making of the other. I've worked with all the great dramatists, Beckett, Pinter, Schaffer, Edgar, Ayckbourn."
Formed His Own Company
In 1988 he formed the Peter Hall Company, and the group's first productions included Tennessee Williams's Orpheus Descending with Vanessa Redgrave and The Merchant of Venice with Dustin Hoffman playing Shylock. The new company worked around the world, appearing in more than 40 productions in London, New York, Europe, and Australia. During this period Hall also worked in other formats. He produced operas and directed films and television productions for the BBC. Though these efforts proved successful, they never reached the heights of his dramatic work. From 1984 to 1990 Hall served as artistic director of Glyndebourne Opera in Sussex, England. He also directed at many of the world's leading opera houses, including the Royal Opera House, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, and Covent Garden. His most celebrated operatic production was the Der Ring des Nibelungen, staged at the Bayreuth Opera House in Germany in 1983. His films include Three into Two Won't Go, a 1969 film starring Rod Steiger and Claire Bloom. He also directed film adaptations of A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Home-coming, and Orpheus Descending.
Hall returned to the RSC in 1992 to direct All's Well That Ends Well and the world premiere of Shaffer's The Gift of the Gorgon in the Pit. In February of that year, he directed the world premiere of John Guare's Four Baboons Adoring the Sun and was nominated for a Tony Award. Hall was again nominated for a Tony in 1996, when he took his production of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband to Broadway.
Staged Landmark Season
In 1997, at age 66, Hall enjoyed what turned out to be one of the most famous seasons of his career. As artistic director at the Old Vic, he staged a 13-play repertoire that became a landmark in the history of that world-famous institution. The schedule included classics performed from Tuesday to Saturday and new plays on Sunday and Monday. Among the works performed were Waste by Harley Granville-Barker, Cloud Nine by Caryl Churchill, and Hurlyburly by David Rabe. Directors included Michael Pennington, Felicity Kendal, Alan Howard, Anna Carteret, and actor Ben Kingsley. Hall directed Anton Chekhov's The Seagull and a new production of Waiting for Godot, the play he had introduced 25 years earlier. He also directed, for the first time, Shakespeare's King Lear. Hall's aim for the season was not only to present classics and modern works, but also to provide a venue for new writers and actors. He wanted to provide a fertile ground for aspiring dramatic artists that would allow them to flourish, without restrictive financial concerns or interference from investors and managers. This environment existed for that one glorious season; afterward, the Old Vic's owners decided to sell the theater. The following year the Company moved to the Piccadilly Theatre, where Hall staged productions of Waiting for Godot, The Misanthrope, and Major Barbara.
In 1999 Hall visited the United States and taught at the University of Houston School of Theatre, having wanted to teach for several years. In addition, in 2000 he worked with the Denver, Colorado, Center for the Performing Arts to develop the ten-hour Greek drama marathon Tantalus, which toured the following year. Returning to England, in 2003, his 50th year as a director, Hall and his company collaborated with the Theatre Royal Bath, where he directed the first of three projected summer residencies. That same year he was named artistic director of Kingston University's theatre in London. In addition, Hall lectured regularly in Great Britain and the United States. In 2004 at the age of 73 Hall went back to the Theater Royal Bath for a second summer season where he directed two plays. He also published a book titled Shakespeare's Advice to the Players, which consists of three sections. The first section deals with the language of Shakespeare, the second deals with notable speeches, and the third part is a memoir.
Honored for Long Career
Throughout his decades working in the theatre, Hall has received numerous awards and honors. In 1967 he accepted a Tony Award for best director for his production of Pinter's The Homecoming, receiving this honor again in 1981 for Amadeus. In 1988, he received the first-ever Critic's Circle Award. In 1999 Hall was awarded the Laurence Olivier Award for Lifetime Achievement. Two decades before, in 1977, he was knighted by the Order of the British Empire for his services to British theatre.
Hall, who has been married four times, is the husband of publicist Nicki Frei. He has six children, four of whom work in the theater. Most notably, his son Edward, from Hall's second marriage to Jacky Taylor, became a successful director; and his daughter Rebecca made a name for herself with her acclaimed portrayal of Rosalind in a production of Shakespeare's As You Like It directed by her father. Hall published his autobiography, Making an Exhibition of Myself, in 1993.
Hall, Peter, Making an Exhibition of Myself, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1993.
Daily Variety, March 25, 2004.
Evening Standard, September 6, 1996; March 23, 2000; November 27, 2000.
Library Journal, March 1, 2004.
New Statesman, February 28, 1997.
Theatre Record, August 21, 1997.
"BBC Breakfast with Frost" (interview), BBC News Web site,http://news/bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/breakfast_with_frost/3185254.stm (October 12, 2003).
"Finding Rosalind in the Family," Boston Globe online,http://www.boston.com/ae/theater_arts/articles/2003/11/09/finding_rosalind_in_the_family/ (November 9, 2003).
"Peter Hall," Dramaddict,http://members.aol.com/dramaddict/petrhall.htm (December 27, 2003).
"Sir Peter Hall," University of Houston School of Theater Web site,http://www.hfac.uh.edu/theatre/faculty/Hall/hall.htm (December 27, 2003).