A Theatrical Juggernaut Is Running Full Steam at 59 : For workaholic Peter Hall, crossing a sea to check a 'Figaro' is business as usual

It is not entirely a physical thing, though he is a big bear of a man, tall and stoop-shouldered as a question mark, but when Sir Peter Hall says, as he once did, "I'm perceived as arrogant, opinionated and loud . . . I'm an obvious target," one has to acquiesce.

Hall, founder of Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company and, until 1988, artistic director of its National Theatre, has a reputation as a willful, pugnacious, articulate workaholic of liberal cloth but conservative cut, "commendably benign" in the teeth of criticism, but not devoid of a poor-me factor.

Leaving the National after 15 years, he formed his own Peter Hall Company last year, promptly staging two hugely successful commercial productions, both of which made the transatlantic hop to Broadway: "Orpheus Descending," with Vanessa Redgrave (now closed) and "The Merchant of Venice" with Dustin Hoffman as Shylock, at the 46th St. Theatre.

Hall was in Los Angeles last week to look in on rehearsals of his other love: opera. On Friday the Los Angeles Music Center Opera revives Hall's "Marriage of Figaro," which he staged in Chicago in 1987. Hall was here for a bit of hands-on attention. Flying 5,000 miles to ensure the integrity of a production, shake a few hands and fly 5,000 miles back, is all in a week's work.

Commendable? Yes. But over his charismatic 35-year career in opera and theater, Hall also has managed to overextend himself, sometimes incongruously. He raised eyebrows (and hackles) by making wallpaper commercials on TV in the '70s and by publishing fascinating tell-all diaries in 1983 that infuriated more than a few of his theater friends.

As was evident in the course of an afternoon rehearsal of "Figaro," "looking in" means going through a scene until it's right, fragment by fragment if necessary, huddling with performers in little nuclei of whispered consultation.

There is lots of repetition, leading to just the right inflection, rhythm, look and meaning. Hall's own body language is restrained but persuasive. For emphasis, he relishes the double negative. "Recitative," he told Rodney Gilfry, the young Figaro, "is about not singing and saying something."

Earlier over lunch, Hall had outlined the differences between directing for theater or for opera:

"When you're dealing with not very good actors, or not very good singers or not very good plays or not very good operas, then the differences are enormous.

"But if you're dealing with the real thing, providing that you understand that, in opera, you're working not primarily from the text but from the music, that the tempo, the atmosphere, the character, the meaning is going to come out of the music, then it is actually no different, because the truth is the truth in any medium.

"It's no more artificial to speak somebody's words on the stage and pretend that I'm making them up than it is to stand on the stage and sing and pretend that I'm really speaking. It's a convention. You work from a different angle, but you arrive at the same place. A director in a play has got a text and he has to find an atmosphere and a tempo and a dynamic that will express that text. Out of that, in a sense, he makes a score."

Hall spoke softly, confidentially, the long, considered sentences unspooling like silk thread--words within words within words--but driving home their point.

"Opera drives me absolutely mad," he continued, "because there are too few (good) singers and they won't rehearse long enough. It's not their fault. They're so in demand they don't want to spend three weeks working to find solutions for something that will work anyway. On the other hand, in my lifetime, opera singers have changed dramatically. They now have to act. Much more. They have to understand much more. But I'm afraid there are still too many singers who stand up, sing the notes and the audience thinks 'Silly old opera, isn't it lovely? I love the music and it doesn't mean anything anyway.'

"I think there's a great tendency for opera to become a kind of camp art that you giggle at and say, 'Well, you know, all I go for is the music.' That's the audience's fault. To me the only interesting thing about opera is that it mean something."

Hall is 59--a turning point in any life. This son of an East Anglian railroad stationmaster has been married and divorced three times (among his wives were actress/dancer Leslie Caron and opera singer Maria Ewing), has five children and is now attached to former National Theatre publicist Nicki Frei. Last year, he lost both his parents within a week of each other. The year before that, he traded the public sector in which he'd worked most of his life for the riskier private one.

Perhaps as a way of sealing that period of his life, Hall had done evening performances of the last Shakespeares he'd staged for the National ("Cymbeline," "The Winter's Tale," "The Tempest") at Epidaurus. Earlier he had staged the "The Oresteia" there. His next project for that Greek amphitheater, late this year or next: Euripides' "The Trojan Women"--in Greek, in full mask, at dawn.

"Partly because the plays were (originally) done at dawn," he said "and partly because they've got these absurd laws that, during daylight hours, the monuments must be open to tourists. These are great daylight theaters and all the Greek plays have an extraordinary sense of opening up as the sun comes out. A kind expansion. I'd just love to experience that."

Dawn at Epidaurus, the move from the public to the private sector--is this part of a rear rangement of priorities mandated by being on the eve of 60 years old?

"Mainly it's the sense that there's not much time," he said, "that if you want to do some things, (you must) get on with them. And I only want to do (what I) enjoy. There's nothing better than a good day's rehearsal and I honestly think that my life is slightly wasted if I don't rehearse a day."

As for being adrift in the commercial world, "It's no different in terms of my working on plays. The plays I put on at the National had to play to 80% business. You can say I had a huge subsidy. I did. But I had a huge building to run with a huge repertory to maintain.

"My first act every morning was to look at (the previous) night's returns to see how many people had come and if we were making budget--exactly (as I do) now.

"I have to fill a theater.

"One thing I believe in passionately about the theater is that you should keep working. You'll have one in three flops, anyway, whoever you are, and if you wait, you'll reduce the number of successes much more than you will the number of flops.

"But I'm very much enjoying not being responsible for 700 people and a budget of 15 million a year. I do miss running something big. But if someone said to me here's a big new theater to run, I would say no. It's not battle fatigue. Not yet. Maybe soon," he said with a self-mocking smile. "It just wouldn't be the right challenge."

Some things, though, never change. Last year this inveterate overachiever did "Orpheus Descending" in London, the film "She's Been Away" (with Peggy Ashcroft and Geraldine James), "The Merchant of Venice" with Hoffman, a new "Figaro" at Glyndebourne, revivals of existing opera productions, "Orpheus" with a new cast on Broadway and Michael Tippett's "New Year" at Houston Grand Opera.

One year's work.

"I don't direct for the success, because that's an extremely dubious quality. And I don't direct for the money," said the man who, all his life, has been accused of doing too much expressly for the money.

"That's rubbish. I laugh ruefully. I'm afraid I laugh," he replied, without laughing, "not all the way to the bank but all the way away from the bank. I've continuously been working at the top of my profession, since my 20s, and I've had a very checkered private life--a lot of marriages, a lot of children, a lot of homes. I have one tiny house in Chelsea and a small pension which I pay into, and no savings. No stocks. No money. Anybody who (doesn't believe it) can come and inspect my books."

In 1955, the unknown Hall staged the first English-language production of "Waiting for Godot."

"Complete luck," he said of a break that served to catapult him into professional orbit. "I was 24, running what you would call an Off Broadway theater (London's Arts Theatre). Landed on my desk this play by Samuel Beckett. I didn't know who Samuel Beckett was. I vaguely remembered the play had been on in Paris. I hadn't been to see it. I read it cold.

"You could say it was one of the most horrible turning points in my life. Suppose I'd said, 'I don't understand it, it's rubbish,' which is what most of the world said? . . . "

He followed that with another coup: the first English production of Ionesco's "The Lesson." He did English premieres of Tennessee Williams' "Camino Real" (1957) and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1958) insisting for the first time (to Williams' delight) that Williams was not a naturalistic playwright.

Soon after, Hall was invited to found the RSC (1959). He developed that company for 10 years, doing the plays of Jean Anouilh and Giraudoux and Pinter and Albee, before being invited to succeed Sir Laurence Olivier as head of the National in 1973.

Hall saw the National through its agonizing move from the Old Vic to the new three-theater South Bank quarters on the Thames in 1976, slogging through the thick and thicker of horrendous building delays, cost overruns, union strife, artistic jealousies and a critical press--all meticulously chronicled in his "Peter Hall's Diaries."

He brought along such brave new postwar playwrights as Howard Brenton, Edward Bond, David Hare, Stephen Poliakoff and Alan Ayckbourn, declared by Hall "as important as Moliere because he is a social chronicler."

The track record was enviable--and envied. He has been called a bumptious fellow who runs roughshod over people, described as Falstaffian, a ringer for Charles Laughton, a Cardinal Wolsey, a manipulator. In short, a leader.

His rivalries with such contemporaries as the late critic Kenneth Tynan, directors Jonathan Miller and Michael Blakemore and playwright John Osborne (who called him "Fu Manchu") have been juicy public affairs--largely because he detailed them in the controversial diaries. Yet despite the book's succes de scandale , it remains above all an absorbing personal odyssey and instructive account of the enormity of the battle waged to get the National on its feet in the South Bank complex.

Considering these difficulties, it is remarkable that he remained at the National 15 years.

"Ten years is enough to stay anywhere," he acknowledged, "but it came right and I was able to enjoy it and do the work I wanted to do. I was prevailed upon by the board to stay for another five, until I could isolate and develop my successor. It's always monstrous running a business like that. One keeps one's sanity--at least I do--by doing two jobs at once. It keeps you sane for both of them."

Hall came under a barrage of criticism for doing not two but three and four jobs at once, including those commercials scorned as being beneath his dignity as a public figure. Aside from directing at Glyndebourne, he also did the occasional role in a German movie, and was presenter for a '70s television arts series.

"If you allow yourself to get completely bound up in an organization, you can be there from dawn until midnight each night," he expounded. "My only regret about the National Theatre period is that I didn't make a movie from 1973 ("Akenfield") until last year ("She's Been Away"), because a movie I could not do."

But film is part of the future.

"I'm going to do a movie of 'Orpheus Descending,' with Vanessa and (Broadway co-star) Kevin Anderson," he said, independently of Triumph Productions (Duncan Weldon and Jerry Minskoff) which finances his Peter Hall Company. According to his contract, "I have the right to work in opera or in television or cinema, provided I keep the company going."

Other dreams: "To have a theater and 25 actors and two or three plays a year and huge resources, like the Schaubuhne has in Berlin or Patrice Chereau has in France. But," he said, getting on to a very sore subject, "I'll never get it, because you don't get it in the English-speaking communities.

"The reason why the Royal Shakespeare grew and the National grew is that, in order to have sufficient subsidy for the right resources, the right quality of actor, the right rehearsal room, the right amount of time, you had to be enormous. We're talking about doing 20, 30, 35 shows a year.

"Because people stupidly say, 'If you're getting that much money, you should be doing more plays.' We're deeply Philistine, on both sides of the Atlantic."

Even with a swing of the political pendulum, Hall fears that, for some institutions, it's already too late.

"The BBC has gone. In effect. I think that's going to make a huge difference to our society. It's crass stupidity to think that freedom of choice, which is freedom to allow 50 separate companies to decide what television you don't want to see every night, is better than a properly funded public service television with a tradition and a sense of honor."

----

In the end, what no one denies or can take away, is the man's extraordinary ability to illuminate a text. Directing for him is about clarity, precision, revelation. Auteurism is not his cup of tea.

"I think (in) honest directing you put your own stamp on (the work) anyway," he said. "It's like handwriting or the way you walk or the tone of your voice. You can't avoid it. But to say--which is a tendency now with many directors, in Europe particularly--the man said he wanted two doors in this room, so the last thing we're going to have is two doors. And when I listen to the music I don't see a room with doors. I see a balloon floating over the mountains. So we'll have a balloon. . . .

"That kind of subjective, surrealistic direction is, in fact, a rewrite of the piece. And it's terribly easy. All those kinds of thesis productions are simplifications. I don't like them and I don't go and see them."

Ergo, he doesn't do them.

"I try not to do them," he cautioned, "but I don't say they shouldn't be done. Please understand me. I think there's a phase at the moment of extremely subjective directing, allied to extremely nonsubjective music-making. For instance, in the operatic world, the musical world, conductors and musicians are passionate to find the first text, the purest text, the composer's intentions, to examine original instruments, original orchestrations, original balance.

"In my trade, the opposite is true. If the man put in some stage directions, ignore them. But you have to say what were his intentions? How can I express (them) in terms a modern audience will understand? Because if an audience (doesn't) understand, then I'm simply dealing with something artificial or pedantic or antique."

Does the reference to "my trade" mean he considers himself than a theater man first?

"If somebody said you can't do both, which will you do, I would do theater," he said, pausing, "but I would do it with a great pang, in a way. How can I put it? Everything about my life is that I've been able to go from opera to theater and back again. It's like going from one mistress to the other. It's having two. I do love that.

"In terms of score, doing Shakespeare is not very different from doing Mozart. Shakespeare gives you a score as well. It's a question of whether you're going to observe it. In Mozart, people do, because the notes are there."

And he relishes one day doing Shakespeare with Americans.

"My feeling about American actors is that they are very musical, very rhythmical. They have an intense body language. They also have an accent that is much richer than modern English and is much closer to Elizabethan English than our very clipt, gray speech. I would love to do a Shakespearean production in full-blooded, properly spoken, properly accented, rhythmically observed American."

"The idea that American actors either can't play Shakespeare or that they should pretend that they're washed up in the middle of the Atlantic speaking some kind of bastard English is ludicrous. It is a technique, as particular as ballet dancing or singing Mozart. And if you don't observe the rules, you shouldn't do it. Because the actual score--the text--will get up and strangle you. You'll lose your voice, be incomprehensible, you won't make sense to the audience.

"The other night at 'The Merchant (of Venice)' I heard a lady in the interval saying at the top of her voice, 'Of course they've modernized it. I can understand it.'

"It was a great tribute."

Richard Eyre is running the National now and Trevor Nunn continues to run the RSC, both men hand-picked by Hall.

Since Nunn has gone on to make a great deal of money directing some of Andrew Lloyd Webber's megamusicals (notably "Cats" and "Aspects of Love"), Hall may sometimes wish he had more of a taste and more of a touch for them.

His two forays into the world of musicals ("Via Galactica" on Broadway and "Jean Seberg," with music by Marvin Hamlisch, at the National) were crashing failures.

"I do like musicals, but I wish musicals could be more grown up," he said in the words of a man whose tastes gravitate to the intricacies of opera.

" 'Sunday in the Park With George' is trying to be grown up. And, I think, 'A Little Night Music' was trying to be grown up, although it was derived from a film and as a consequence has certain artificialities." (Hall attacked it mercilessly in the diaries, saying "The Bergman film 'Smiles of a Summer Night' is reduced to a corpse of elegance, wit and outrageousness . . . (the) music is abysmal.")

He has never defended "Via Galactica" (the 1972 debacle is also described in the diaries), but about "Seberg" he said: "As soon as we announced that we were doing a new American musical, the British press had one of their spurious and despicable fits of morality and for six months they ran a campaign that the National Theatre was not given (public) money to do musicals.

"The fact that we'd just done 'Guys and Dolls' and made an enormous success of it was ignored. It's like saying--which they do from time--you mustn't do comedies like Alan Ayckbourn. You must only do highbrow pieces of verse drama which nobody wants to come and see, I suppose."

Hall is not sure there's a way of creating musical theater that doesn't patronize ("I've signally failed to do it"), but he's about to try again. The project for this fall is a musicalization of Ionesco's "Rhinoceros," retitled "Born Again," and transposed to a community of shopping mall-addicted Californians who turn into rhinos.

"We talked about starting out here with it, for obvious reasons," Hall said, "but I think I've gone too far with (plans for) it in England."

Julian Barry ("Lenny," "Jean Seberg") has written the book. As for the score, "It's been . . . what is the cant word of the day? . . . through-composed by a young man called Jason Carr who's 24 and fresh out of music college," Hall said. "It's very eclectic, very intelligent and funny.

"Speaking of things one wants to do at 59, I would like, in the next 10 years, to do three or four pictures that had my handwriting on them. That means original pictures.

"I've got one or two operas that I have a passion to do: 'Les Troyens' by Berlioz with Maggio Musicale in Florence next year. That will be a co-production with Los Angeles (the Music Center Opera) that will almost certainly come here. And I'm going to do 'Peter Grimes' in Munich. This is a slightly proselytizing act because Britten's operas are not very well known in Germany. Next year I leave Glyndebourne. I've been (working) there since 1970 (becoming artistic director in 1984). So I'm slightly cutting adrift from all these responsibilities."

But the dance card is as overbooked as ever. For his Peter Hall Company, there's "Born Again" to do, a new Poliakoff play, a revival of "The Rose Tattoo" ("which has never been properly done in England and which I think is a wonderful farce") and up next at the Haymarket, "The Wild Duck."

"Ibsen's plays are so aggressive," he said, "so illuminating and funny. He's got to be taken out of this dark green, stuffy world he inhabits in people's imaginations."

Also this year: a new play about W.B. Yeats and Maud Gonne written by Edna O'Brien, and a 25th anniversary revival in October of Pinter's "The Homecoming."

"For his 60th birthday," he said. "We had a slight fracas . He didn't like my diaries. But we're all right again now." Since Hall recently lamented to another interviewer that he hasn't done much Chekhov, Granville Barker, Shaw, Sheridan or Goldsmith, one can reasonably expect that he'll use his free-lancing years to catch up.

"I must get fit, live well, and cease to behave like a demented superman," he wrote 12 years ago in the diaries.

It could have been yesterday.

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