The chimes at midnight: Sir Peter Hall; an obituary

The chimes at midnight: Sir Peter Hall; an obituary

‘O, reason not the need’ Act II, Scene IV, King Lear  

Peter Hall’s recent death is one of the Arts’ greatest losses. However it is true to say that as the founder of the RSC Company and the director of the National Theatre for fifteen years, Sir Peter lived an extremely full life. Despite the fact that his work may not be known to many younger generations today, his efforts were invaluable in influencing governments to view arts as a public sector worth funding. This is even more profound in the aftermath of Brexit; Creative Europe, the EU’s organisation to fund cultural and creative sectors in Europe supported 230 UK cultural groups last year. It further pledged to invest €1.46bn between the years 2014 and 2020. The status of this funding is now worryingly vague, limiting the creative abilities of young, fresh talent. Peter Hall himself lamented the Arts’ decline, however in his optimistic way, claimed that theatre will always endure. ‘The theatre is always dying, always has been, because it's always changing. Change looks like imminent death sometimes. But it won't ever go away because it's live and there's nothing that you can compare it to because of that’

Such words from a man who worked himself to exhaustion and mental breakdown in trying to spark artistic inspiration. All in an age overshadowed by Margaret Thatcher’s limited engagement with the Arts. Thatcher rejected his Amadeus due to its foul language which did not correlate with her view of an artist who could create ‘works of beauty’. Sir Peter promptly sent Mozart’s letters to Downing Street with the obscenities highlighted. Despite this personal dispute, in 1979 Hall voted Conservative in the hope that Thatcher would sort out the trade unions who were giving the National Theatre cause for concern. But again, Thatcher responded with a lack of enthusiasm. She believed that the arts should pay for themselves, giving Andrew Lloyd Webber as an example of why her support would be wasted. Considering that London theatre contributed £27 billion to the economy in 2015 alone, Peter Hall was right to meet such blatant ignorance head-on, although his passion cannot be limited to economics.

Often criticised by the left for over-spending and the right for being frugal with funding, he had to endure a lot of backlash. This is perhaps why it would be better to view his life less in terms of his politics, and instead focus on the art which he loved.

Growing up on a single-line railway, Hall saw Gielgud’s Hamlet at the age of twelve, ‘standing at the back for sixpence’.  From such meagre beginnings, during his fifteen years at the NT there were over 300 productions put on stage, including 10 world premieres, with 30 directed by himself. An avid lover of Shakespeare, Sir Peter still had time for new writing, promoting pieces such as Beckett's 1955 Waiting for Godot- the British début of which quickly made him one of the most talked about directors. A friend of Harold Pinter, notorious for his darkly intense writing, the style of his directing was unique in its energy and attention to detail, as he emphasised the musicality of the lines, perhaps taking inspiration from his beloved Mozart. He longed to direct Mozart as much as he did Shakespeare, and this ambition led him to directing opera at Glyndebourne and the Royal Opera House. It is therefore little wonder that he was awarded his knighthood for services to British theatre in 1977.

A figurehead who devoted his life and energies to the arts, old age affected him bitterly. Evoking his beloved Falstaff, he heckled actresses on stage and succumbed to dementia, but still remains irrevocably relevant, leaving behind a plethora of talent. I think it would be true to say that Lear’s line ‘O, reason not the need’ (Act II, Scene IV) resonates with his justification of the arts. Although the growth in technology is arguably making us more docile, Sir Hall’s life is testament to the endurance of creativity. One of my favourite lines of his which captures his tenacity is this: ‘give me six actors, three days and a room and I could create something to fire your imagination’. I think they are brilliant words to live by.

Sir Peter Hall died from pneumonia, September 11 2017 aged 86

To find out more about the life and work of Peter Hall, click here

Esther Bancroft, English Literature student, Theatre editor Bristol I:M