Sir Peter Hall, 1930-2017
The Pinter: Histories and Legacies team were saddened to learn earlier this week of the death of Sir Peter Hall. Without any doubt, Hall was the most important figure in post-war twentieth-century British theatre, a director and visionary whose own history is a map of that period, and whose legacies are interwoven into the fabric of the British cultural landscape. He modernised the British theatre, elevated the role and artistry of the director, and campaigned fiercely for and energetically defended publicly-subsidised arts.
The professional relationship between Harold Pinter and Peter Hall – peers born a month apart in 1930 – was an important one that we’ll be charting and considering in much of the work we are undertaking on this project. Their intellectual connection began, if not in person, with Hall’s 1957 British debut of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which Pinter vehemently defended, before even seeing the production. He quickly became the writer’s director of choice: Pinter’s agent, Michael Codron, sent Hall the script for The Birthday Party, though the director was then unable to take on that play as he had commitments in New York. When The Caretaker was later sent to him, he had to turn that down too as he was busy setting up work at the Aldwych, in preparation for establishing the RSC, but was taken enough with the play to invest in the funding of its eventual production.
Hall’s subsequent journey through his key roles as founder and director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and director of the National Theatre is one he invited Pinter to share: as a resident writer at the RSC, and as an associate director at the NT. He would become the director of the author’s work for the best part of two decades, being responsible for the stage premieres of The Collection (in 1962) (which the two men co-directed), The Homecoming (1965), Landscape and Silence (1969), Old Times (1971), No Man’s Land (1975), Betrayal (1978), Family Voices, Victoria Station and A Kind of Alaska (all three as Other Places in 1982). He directed the 1973 film of The Homecoming, with the original RSC cast, which is a remarkable record of his understanding of and input into that play (see Billy’s earlier post).
In many ways, Peter Hall was the director who established the dominant mode of approaching a Pinter play: in terms of our project, his work represents one of the most significant trunks of Pinter theatrical genealogy, the legacy of which might be found over and over in traces in subsequent productions. He used vocabulary of combat and challenge in the rehearsal room, sought to have the actors reconcile the mask that the characters deploy and the real emotions and motivations beneath that mask: ‘what was not said often spoke as forcefully as the words themselves. The breaks represented a journey in the actor’s emotions, sometimes a surprising transition’.1 He sought to affect the audience with the hurt that is being manifest, disguised or exploited in Pinter’s work, and produced masterpieces that have formed cornerstones of British Theatre history such as the 1965 production of The Homecoming at the RSC or the 1975 production of No Man’s Land at the National with Ralph Richardson and Jon Gielgud in the lead roles. He was also the director to successfully formulate a working response to the (in)famous ‘Pinter pause’:
There is a difference in Pinter between a pause and a silence and three dots. A pause is really a bridge where the audience think that you’re this side of the river, then when you speak again, you’re the other side. That’s a pause. And it’s alarming, often. It’s a gap, which retrospectively gets filled in. It’s not a dead stop ‑ that’s a silence, where the confrontation has become too extreme, there is nothing to be said until either the temperature has gone down, or the temperature has gone up, and then something quite extreme happens. Three dots is a very tiny hesitation, but it’s there, and it’s different from a semi-colon, which Pinter almost never uses, and it’s different from a comma. A comma is something you catch up on, you go through it. And a full stop’s just a full stop. You stop.2
Video: Hall on Pinter: ‘Less is more’ (recommended to watch to 19:10, or watch the entire interview here)
Selected obituaries of Peter Hall