Amidst the fuss surrounding the 1972 appointment of Peter Hall as successor to the National Theatre’s first director, Laurence Olivier, the National’s literary manager Kenneth Tynan said of Hall, who had been the main architect in creating the Royal Shakespeare Company: “We are the Cavaliers, Stratford the Roundheads – with the emphasis on analytical intelligence and textual clarity. Under Peter Hall the country would have two Roundhead theatres.’’
Tynan’s theory was alarmist tosh – Hall was much too canny simply to replicate the RSC on the South Bank – but Hall would not have demurred at the “Roundhead’’ comparison; without conventional religion, his roots nevertheless lay in the nonconformist Suffolk soil of his childhood (he once labelled himself “an East Anglian Puritan’’), the radical instincts nurtured by his station-master father and in his Cambridge education as a scholarship boy at the Perse School and St Catharine’s College where his lucid intelligence was honed by the teaching of that arch-Roundhead FR Leavis, who gave the adolescent Hall something of his conviction that the moral weight of art might surpass that of religion.
A central paradox about Hall, however, was the co-existence in his nature of a strong Cavalier streak. Despite outward composure he could be impulsive and strongly, even violently, emotional – he suffered acute nervous breakdowns at crucial points in his career – while much of his work, especially during his earlier Stratford period, was highly romantic in approach and design. The combination made for a redoubtable personality, as much resented as loved (detractors’ nicknames included Genghis Khan and Tammany Hall).
Nobody who is impresario and director can survive without a ruthless streak (Olivier had one) and Hall undoubtedly made many enemies. He took over RSC productions and could abruptly fire actors – Zia Mohyeddin days before opening as Romeo at Stratford or, having wooed her heavily (‘’Peter Hall gives good phone,’’ she said later), Sarah Miles from a 1997 Cvmbeline. While his NT reign made lasting opponents of directors Michael Blakemore and Jonathan Miller.
Hall with his second wife Jacquelne and their children Edward and Lucy in 1973 (Rex)
Yet it is equally true that Hall forged enduring partnerships with some of the most significant artists of his era – Peggy Ashcroft, Judi Dench, Dorothy Tutin, Janet Baker, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson,…