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

PUBLISHED: 16:43 12 September 2017 | UPDATED: 09:36 17 September 2017

Sir Peter Hall  at the official opening of the historic Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds in 2007. 

Sir Peter Hall at the official opening of the historic Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds in 2007. PICTURE ANDY ABBOTT

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, 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.

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.

He was born in Bury St Edmunds in November 1930 and although he was a major player on the national and world stage, he never forgot his Suffolk roots and he retained a special love for Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal.

In 2004, he agreed to become President of the theatre’s restoration appeal, and granted a rare interview with the EADT to explain his on-going love for the Georgian playhouse.

Sir Peter Hall CBE and Sir Ian McKellen CBE at the launch of The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds  Restoration Appeal in 2004. Photo: Bury Theatre Royal Sir Peter Hall CBE and Sir Ian McKellen CBE at the launch of The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds Restoration Appeal in 2004. Photo: Bury Theatre Royal

He said that a piece of youthful vandalism, at the age of 14, spurred on his desire to become a theatre director. He had heard rumours that the Greene King barrel store, situated next to the brewery, had once been a theatre. During the school summer holidays he managed to break into the shuttered, semi-derelict building and discovered a forgotten theatrical wonderland.

“It made a huge impression on me,” he said, “I can still remember quite clearly the ghostly atmosphere, the cob-webs and the half-light coming from where I had broken in. The plasterwork was filthy, dust covered everything but there was something quite magical about it.

“You could tell instantly that this was a special place and I wanted to spend the rest of my life working in the theatre. From then on I was on a quest, if you like, to avidly absorb as much information as I could about this wonderful world.”

Trevor Nunn taking over as Artistic Director of the RSC from Peter Hall. Photo: RSC Trevor Nunn taking over as Artistic Director of the RSC from Peter Hall. Photo: RSC

Although, he didn’t come from a professional theatrical background, his family were active in the Bury St Edmunds amateur drama scene. “My father Reginald was quite active in the Bury Amateur Dramatic Society and was very proud of the fact that he closed down one theatre with his performance as thr Shah of Persia in 1926.

“Theatre was very much a part of our lives. We had a piano in the house and he loved to play while everyone sang Gilbert and Sullivan.” He paused for effect before adding: “As a consequence I have had a deep hatred for Gilbert and Sullivan ever since.”

Sir Peter started his directing career during his final year at Cambridge University, putting five productions on stage, which meant that he was immediately noticed by the London critics. By the age of 24 he was director of productions at the Arts Theatre, off Leicester Square, and the youngest artistic director in the country.

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

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.

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

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

The film’s producer Rex Pyke said that music from the film, composed by Hall’s close friend Michael Tippett, was being played in his room at University College Hospital, London, during his final hours. Tippett’s Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli played a major role in the emotional atmosphere of the film.

Ronald Blythe, author of the original Akenfield novel and the later screenplay, said that he was very sad to hear of Sir Peter’s death. “He was a lovely man and he came to stay a great deal when we were developing the film. He was very much a man of the theatre and knew nothing about farming and the countryside. I knew nothing about theatre and film but knew all about rural life, so between us we made a very good team.

“When we started filming, he told me: ‘You must be my eyes. I can’t tell the difference between wheat and barley. You must tell when something is wrong, so we worked well together. I think we managed to capture the spirit of what people had said was an unfilmable book.”

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.

Fellow Suffolk-born director Sir Trevor Nunn said: “Peter Hall’s achievement defies definition, except that perhaps, it allows us to understand why we have the word ‘great’ in our language. Peter’s greatness lay in his astonishing originality, his charismatic leadership, his unparalleled daring, his profound scholarship, his matchless articulacy and his visionary understanding of what we call ‘the theatre’ could be.

“In originating the RSC, he created an ensemble which led the world in Shakespeare production, but which triumphed to the same extent in presenting new plays of every kind. Not only a thrilling and penetrating director, he was also the great impresario of the age. He alone had the showmanship and energy to establish the three ring circus of our unique National Theatre on the South Bank.

“Peter Hall is a legend, whose legacy will benefit many generations to come. And yes, he was my beloved friend for fifty years.”

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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