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Suffolk-born RSC and National Theatre director Sir Peter Hall dies

PUBLISHED: 16:42 12 September 2017 | UPDATED: 09:36 17 September 2017

Sir Peter Hall, Peggy Cole , Ronald Blythe and Garrow Shand share their memories of Akenfield at Charsfield Church.

Sir Peter Hall, Peggy Cole , Ronald Blythe and Garrow Shand share their memories of Akenfield at Charsfield Church.

Theatre giant Sir Peter Hall has died after a long illness. Born in Suffolk, he returned to the county to direct the film of Akenfield. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke takes a look at his life and career.

Sir Peter Hall and Ronald Blythe on the set of Akenfield in 1974Sir Peter Hall and Ronald Blythe on the set of Akenfield in 1974

Suffolk-born theatre legend Sir Peter Hall has died aged 86, the National Theatre have announced. The son of a Bury St Edmunds station master, Sir Peter was the founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company before taking over the National Theatre from Sir Laurence Olivier.

Sir Peter had been diagnosed with dementia in 2011.

His extraordinary career spanned more than half a century: in his mid-20s he staged the English language premiere of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. In 1960, aged 29, Peter Hall founded the Royal Shakespeare Company which he led until 1968. The RSC realised his pioneering vision of a resident ensemble of actors, directors and designers producing both classic and modern texts with a clear house style in both Stratford and London.

He returned to his Suffolk roots in 1974 when he directed a big screen adaptation of Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield, his best-selling novel about rural life, which used local non-professional actors like Peggy Cole and Garrow Shand.

Ronald Blythe (left) and Peter Hall, Ronald Blythe (left) and Peter Hall, "Akenfield's director. Ronald wrote the book on which the film is based and also played the part of a clergyman. Photo: Ronald Blythe Collection

He revisited the Akenfield locations in 2004 to film a documentary about the classic film to accompany the restoration of the film for DVD.

Appointed Director of the National Theatre in 1973, Peter Hall was responsible for the move from the Old Vic to the purpose-built complex on the South Bank. He successfully established the company in its new home in spite of union unrest and widespread scepticism. After leaving the National Theatre in 1988, he formed the Peter Hall Company (1988 – 2011) and in 2003 became the founding director of the Rose Theatre Kingston. Throughout his career, Sir Peter was a vociferous champion of public funding for the arts.

Peter Hall’s prolific work as a theatre director included the world premieres of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming (1965), No Man’s Land (1975) and Betrayal (1978), Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus (1979), John Barton’s nine-hour epic Tantalus (2000); and the London and Broadway premieres of Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce (1977). Other landmark productions included Hamlet (1965, with David Warner), The Wars of the Roses (1963), The Oresteia (1981), Animal Farm (1984), Antony and Cleopatra (1987, with Judi Dench and Anthony Hopkins), The Merchant of Venice (1989, with Dustin Hoffman), As You Like It (2003, with his daughter Rebecca Hall) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2010, with Judi Dench). Peter’s last production at the National Theatre was Twelfth Night in 2011.

Peter Hall was also an internationally renowned opera director. He staged the world premiere of Michael Tippett’s The Knot Garden (1970) and was Artistic Director of Glyndebourne Festival Opera (1984 – 90) where he directed more than twenty productions. Peter Hall worked at many of the world’s leading houses including The Royal Opera, the Metropolitan Opera and Bayreuth where, in 1983, he staged Wagner’s Ring Cycle to honour the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death.

Sir Peter was diagnosed with dementia in 2011. He is survived by his wife, Nicki, and children Christopher, Jennifer, Edward, Lucy, Rebecca and Emma and nine grandchildren. His former wives, Leslie Caron, Jacqueline Taylor and Maria Ewing also survive him. There will be a private family funeral and details of a memorial service will be announced at a later date.

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First things first, let it be known that the film that this theatrical event is based on is one of my top 25, desert island movies. It has, therefore, a lot to live up to. Transferring any classic film from the big screen to the stage is a perilous job because it comes with a massive amount of baggage and expectation.

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