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That’s how he likes it

Special to The Times

In theater circles here, Sir Peter Hall is renowned for his tireless energy and punishing work ethic. But even by his standards, it’s remarkable for a man of 74 to anticipate directing eight productions this year, culminating in his launch of an intriguing new playhouse.

Hall brings to the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles next week his production of “As You Like It,” with his 22-year-old daughter, Rebecca, playing Rosalind -- a performance that has elicited critical raves.

It’s the fourth Shakespeare play he has directed at the Ahmanson in his career, which spans half a century. He founded the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960 and was artistic director of the National Theatre for 15 years.

But right now, most of his long-term thinking is concentrated on the Rose at Kingston, a new theater in a very old style, due to open officially within the next 12 months. Situated in a suburb southwest of central London, its circular 1,000-seat auditorium is based on the famous Elizabethan theater the Rose, where many of Shakespeare’s early plays were first performed. Its remains were excavated at Southwark on the south bank of the Thames in 1989, more than 400 years after its original use. Hall has signed on as its artistic director.

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“A group of people in Kingston wanted to build a theater for their town and were persuaded against another boring, modern building,” he said over breakfast at a Leicester Square hotel. “There’s a lot of them out there, and they were built at a time when we’d lost the art of building theaters. So they agreed to do something original.”

The Rose at Southwark shocked historians, who had assumed all Elizabethan theaters had thrust stages, jutting out “like a wide diving board,” as Hall puts it, into the audience. But the Rose was found to have a broad, lozenge-shaped stage, with the whole audience arranged in front of it. The Rose at Kingston follows this design, and Hall’s company performed “As You Like It” for three weeks in December in the shell of the building.

“It’s a really wonderful space,” he enthused. “When you stand in the center of the stage, you have every member of the audience in your peripheral vision. It feels very intimate. It’s small enough to whisper and large enough to shout.”

Kingston audiences were enthusiastic about the new space, although “As You Like It” was performed in a building that had no heat, no air conditioning and no hot water. Temporary portable restrooms were rigged up outside the building, and the event was marketed as “In the Raw.”

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“It was so well received, people there suggested we should keep the theater just as it was,” Hall said. “But we can only get licensing permission from the local council to perform in three-week [blocks of time] for health and safety reasons.”

One significant change that departs from Elizabethan custom is the space for “groundlings” in front of the stage. Originally, groundlings stood to watch plays and could even stroll about. But Hall and his team raised the groundlings’ area by some 3 feet and placed about 200 cushions for Kingston’s cheap-ticket buyers: “We put them on sale for 5 pounds [$9] and they sold like hotcakes, mostly to young people.”

A fast-paced year ahead

The official opening of the Rose at Kingston depends on fundraising efforts. The theater will end up costing about $20 million, of which 40% has already been raised.

While he waits for more money to fill the theater’s coffers, Hall is typically staying busy. His West End revival of Brian Clark’s 1978 play “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” -- starring “Sex and the City’s” Kim Cattrall as a bedridden woman who wants to be allowed to end her life -- opened Tuesday to mostly positive notices. The Daily Telegraph called Hall’s staging “efficient rather than inspired” but added that “the luminous glow of Cattrall’s beautiful, poignant performance will linger long in the memory.”

Hall will visit Los Angeles for the first performances of “As You Like It,” then return to London for the opening of “The Dresser,” a revival of Ronald Harwood’s play about a dictatorial theatrical impresario, successfully filmed in 1982 with Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay.

This year, he will direct three plays at the Theatre Royal, Bath (where his “As You Like It” was first seen in 2003) as well as two operas -- one at England’s Glyndebourne Festival Opera, the second in Chicago. “That’s pretty much the whole year taken care of,” he said jovially.

Yet Hall is allowing himself the indulgence of enjoying his daughter’s newfound success. Daily Telegraph critic Charles Spencer rated Rebecca Hall’s performance as Rosalind as “marvelous.” “Watching her,” he wrote, “you are in no doubt that you are watching a great actress in the making.” Several other London critics joined the chorus of praise.

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“I’m lucky,” he said. “I have a brilliant daughter who’s an actress and a brilliant son [Edward] who’s a director.” He recalled Rebecca’s acting debut at age 9 in “The Camomile Lawn,” a British TV drama series he directed. “Afterward, I sat her down, told her she could be an actress, but she might like to have a childhood first. So she stayed away from that whole child actor business, which I was pleased about because the transition can be difficult.”

“I think my dad helped,” agreed Rebecca Hall by phone. “I knew I wanted to be an actor, but he didn’t encourage me to become one back then.”

As her father notes, she has played Rosalind 130 times in the last 18 months, and she has strong opinions about the character and “As You Like It.” “It’s not exactly a dark play, but it isn’t just lovely and rosy either. Rosalind has an enormous amount of trepidation and fear about love. She has defensive aspects of her character. Her wit tends to hide emotions that can’t easily be expressed. She’s vulnerable.”

Rebecca hopes the next step in her career will be “to do some interesting film stuff. But I don’t know a lot about the film world. It’s a lottery, as far as I can gather. On the other hand my mom [Hall’s ex-wife, soprano Maria Ewing] is American, and she brought a whole culture of film viewing to my childhood. A lot of great American movies. So I’m quite a film buff.”

Rebecca added that she was leaving future commitments open during the Los Angeles run of “As You Like It,” “in the hope I’ll get a film job.”

Sir Peter had already brooded on this possibility.

“I hope Rebecca comes home and doesn’t stay in Hollywood,” he said, like a regretful father. Then he smiled roguishly. “But these days you can’t be a potent stage actor unless you’re a film actor too. So ... I didn’t really mean that!”

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‘As You Like It’

Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

When: Opens Feb. 7. Regular schedule: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Call for other dates.

Ends: March 27

Price: $20 to $75

Contact: (213) 628-2772


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