High Drama

Sir Peter Hall travels to the American West to embark on his biggest undertaking—a ten-hour epic on the Trojan War.

It isn't often you'll hear Sir Peter Hall, living legend and titan of the British stage, admit to being nervous. For most of his career Hall has demonstrated such audacity that he has seemed, at times, completely fearless. Why, then, the sudden change of heart?

As it happens, Hall has every reason to be apprehensive. He has just taken on a project that gives new meaning to the word "gigantic." Called Tantalus, it consists of ten plays, has a running time of ten hours (audiences will see it over three successive evenings), and deals with a subject (the Trojan War) that may have trouble putting "bottoms in seats." In Denver, where Tantalus opens in October before moving to London in April and then embarking on a major European tour, people are calling it "the largest undertaking in the history of the theater." But that may be straining things a bit. What it really is is the largest undertaking in the history of Peter Hall. Talk about being under the gun.

Hall is no stranger to mammoth productions. In 1964 he directed The Wars of the Roses, a seven-play history cycle mounted to mark the quadricentennial of Shakespeare's birth; in 1981 he staged The Oresteia, Aeschylus' tragic trilogy tracing the decline of the house of Atreus; and then, just 12 months later, he tempted fate again, this time in Bayreuth, where he directed an acclaimed version of Wagner's Ring cycle.

What makes Tantalus different from these projects, Hall tells me over lunch in Denver, is not its length or its vaulting ambition. This is a new work, he stresses, receiving its first production. With Tantalus, Hall is venturing into terra incognita, and that jangles the nerves a bit. "For the moment," he says, "we don't know what we're dealing with."

The expectation in theater circles is that Tantalus, written over a 15-year period by English playwright John Barton, will be a critical triumph. (Its commercial prospects are something the gods will have to decide.) But for now at least—our lunch took place in April, just two weeks after rehearsals began—Hall has a mild case of the jitters. In his Diaries, published in the United States in 1984, he wrote of those moments in a director's life when a play, all of a sudden and with no warning, yields up its mysteries. "It hasn't happened yet on Tantalus," he says.

He sounds so downcast about this that I feel compelled to reassure him. "It's still very early."

"Well, yes. But it slightly worries me. There are no rules, of course, but a lot of the time you get inside a play immediately." He suspects that the fault in this case may be his; that he has yet to achieve the proper level of relaxation. "If you are tight, it's hard to find an instinctive idea that makes a play open up."

Hall may feel tight, but he doesn't look it. Clad in sneakers, a canvas jacket, and khaki trousers, this is a man who, when he reaches for his clothes in the morning, is not planning to make a fashion statement. The word "rumpled" comes to mind. His beard is gray now—he is, after all, in his seventieth year—and his hair? Well, it has been a while since he visited a barber.

We're having our lunch in a small park (hardly a park, really; most of it is concrete) a short distance from the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. It was his idea that we eat alfresco; after a morning in the rehearsal room he needed a breath of air. But the moment we sit down the wind picks up, and it gets so loud that I can barely hear him. I am left with no choice but to spend the next hour holding my tape recorder inches from his face. He can't have found it very pleasant, but he pretended not to notice.

Success has come to Peter Hall not once but often. This former Young Turk, son of a railway worker and grandson of a ratcatcher, is part of the Establishment now, and at times he seems to regret it. (Hall calls himself an "old-fashioned 19th-century radical.") He can, however, take comfort in the fact that the Establishment has its own qualms about him. A London newspaper recently described him as a former enfant terrible turned senior-citizen terrible.

In a career spanning half a century Hall, by one estimate, has staged some 200 plays. He created the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960 and, starting in 1973, headed Britain's Royal National Theatre for what proved to be 15 crucial years. He hasn't lacked for laurels—among them Tonys for Amadeus and The Homecoming, an Olivier lifetime achievement award, an honorary degree from Liverpool University, and, in 1977, a knighthood for service to the realm.

Hall was born in Bury St. Edmunds in 1930 and educated at Cambridge. He landed his first directing job just two weeks out of college, and while still in his twenties he not only staged the first English-language production of Beckett's Waiting for Godot but also worked, at Stratford, with such luminaries as Laurence Olivier, Peggy Ashcroft, and Charles Laughton.

Being so young, wasn't working with Olivier intimidating? "I was asked that question a lot at the time," he says. "The answer, of course, is that you didn't direct Olivier. You encouraged him to do things he might not have thought he could do or might not have known before. You created conditions in which he did the unexpected." A bad director, he adds, can undermine the confidence of even an actor as great as Olivier.

But if Hall was feted in the sixties, the seventies were years of turmoil. After taking the helm at the National as it moved from the Old Vic to new quarters on the south bank of the Thames, he was promptly set upon by the same press that once had lionized him. He was accused of everything from arrogance and profligacy to strikebreaking and driving smaller theaters to the wall. The charges were often vicious. In his Diaries, he tells of a guide on a Thames tour boat who, when he passed the National, would say it was run by "a pig called Hall."

There were other insults too. But Hall, who has a stubborn streak, stood his ground. When he finally did leave the National, in 1988, he had established it as one of the finest theaters in the world. But the effort cost him dearly. At one point he came within a hair of suffering a nervous breakdown. (As his crisis deepened, he dreamed one night that he had cut his own throat.) And then his marriage failed.

"The press always treats you unfairly," he says now. "It's a rule of life." Many British journalists, he feels, are driven by sensationalism, "and if what I'm doing can be exaggerated to appear sensational, they'll do it. All you can do is never believe what they say about you, whether good or bad."

Looking back on those years now, he refers to them as "a seven-year maul." ("And then I had eight years of peace and happiness," he quickly concedes.) "On the whole, creating the Royal Shakespeare Company was a case of the Young Turk being helped and praised, whereas the experience with the National Theatre was exactly the opposite," he says. "So I've had both sides. I don't regret going to the National, and I certainly don't regret having stuck with it. The British theater would be in a real mess now if it didn't have the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, and the Royal Court. It would be as miserable and pointless as Broadway."

Hall admits to liking pressure, and it's also clear that he relishes a risk. "Any form of artistic activity gets you into the risk area," he says. "I'm not a gambler in life, but I'm a gambler in my work—you have to be."

But there may be something more involved. In his Diaries, Hall refers so often to his working-class origins that one is left to wonder if he doesn't feel he has something to prove. This man never takes on just one project. He seems happiest when he's juggling several, complaining all the while that he'll drive himself to an early grave if he doesn't get some rest. His gluttony for work alarms even his closest friends. Urging him to slow down, the conductor Bernard Haitink told him once, "Somewhere there must be peace for your madness."

Which brings us to another kind of risk—the danger of never wanting to stop. "People work in the theater to avoid life," Hall has been quoted as saying. But that was years ago, back when the press was calling for his head. Much has changed since then. He is married now, for the fourth time—"bliss" he calls it—and seven years ago he became a father again. (He has five children from his first three marriages.) Is there a point at which he might decide to chuck it all and simply grow roses?

He shakes his head emphatically. "I could not possibly give up working because I like it. I hope I shall die in rehearsal. I'd much sooner be at work than not. I have a job I have a passion for. I'm very lucky. You do it for those days when it all happens—you're better than you are, the actors are better than they are, and you find something. That happens two or three times on each production. On Tantalus, it had better happen seven or eight times. But that's what I do it for. Not for the audience or for the critics. The highs are in rehearsal."

There's another reason why Hall is unlikely to retire: Were he ever to do so, he would be deprived of the opportunity to shock. He is what the English call a "stirrer," someone who likes to roil the waters. In March a play he directed, Giuseppe Manfridi's black comedy Cuckoos, opened in London and provoked an immediate uproar. The London Times described the work as "hardly family viewing"—its themes include incest and sodomy—and urged its more sensitive readers to have nothing to do with it. All of which pleased Hall mightily. While describing the controversy he set in motion, he was positively beaming. Inside this very serious man is a deep reservoir of mischief.

But the last year or two brought disappointments as well, the greatest occurring when Hall's own company, created when he left the National, found itself without a home. By most standards the company was a signal success—among its many acclaimed productions were three that transferred to Broadway: Tennessee Williams' Orpheus Descending, with Vanessa Redgrave, The Merchant of Venice, with Dustin Hoffman, and Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband. This, though, was not enough to save it. Hall appealed to the government of Tony Blair and to the Arts Council. But help was not forthcoming, and the company is now dormant.

"I've had extraordinary luck professionally for most of my life and a lot of turmoil privately," Hall says. "But for the last several years it's really been the other way around." All he's ever wanted, he claims, is a theater in London and his own company of actors. Now he has neither, and he feels deeply hurt.

"Your energies show no signs of flagging," I tell him. "Maybe you can found another company." But he won't be convinced. "If someone handed me a million quid, I'd do it tomorrow. But I don't think there's any hope."

In a weak effort to break the mood I ask why Tantalus is opening in Denver rather than London. All this does is increase his gloom. He had wanted to open in London, he says, but found he couldn't raise the money. That's when Donald Seawell, the chairman D.C.P.A., put an offer on the table: If Hall moved Tantalus to Denver, Seawell would finance the project to the tune of seven million dollars.

After Tantalus opens, Hall will leave Denver for Los Angeles over Christmas to direct another Shakespeare season (his second); then there are tentative plans for a play on Broadway in the new year; and in the fall of 2001 he'll mount Verdi's Otello at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. "I'm booked for the next three years," he says. And after that? "More work, I suppose. One is never satisfied. I think if you were, you'd give up."

Hall's spirits revive when I ask him to describe his theatrical legacy. "I think that I helped make putting on a play a very serious business and a responsible craft," he says. "You owe it to an audience to do the best you can. They give up some three hours of their life, so simply chucking something on a stage is an impertinence. I hope as well that my work has great clarity. I hope that it's not sentimental. I hope it treats the theater with respect in that what it puts on the stage is necessary—not merely illustrative. If it isn't necessary, it shouldn't be there."

Eric Lawlor wrote about Faye Dunaway in the January/February 1998 issue of Departures.