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Peter Hall, British Theater Director and Founder of Royal Shakespeare Company, Dies at 86

When directing, his concern was always for the rhythm of the language and the truth behind the words. He regarded himself as “a musical director of plays.” As he put it, “You learn the notes, you learn the steps, you learn the shapes, and then one has to make it one’s own and act it.”

Richard Eyre, his successor at the National, saw Mr. Hall’s work as being “true to the text, unostentatious, uncluttered, lucid, quite muscular and wonderfully accessible.”

He brought the same principles to opera, especially Mozart. Singers, encouraged to find the emotion in the music, responded with economical, truthful performances that acknowledged that the work as a whole was more important than personal display.


Peter Hall with the actress Judi Dench in 2011.

Ian Gavan/Getty Images

Mr. Hall had his share of critical disasters, though they were far outnumbered by his triumphs. His staging of Verdi’s “Macbeth” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1982, with witches on broomsticks, was excoriated as over the top.

More typical was the praise showered on his 1989 Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’s “Orpheus Descending.” Frank Rich, writing in The New York Times, said Mr. Hall’s staging had brought “the action and language to the fever pitch of Gothic hallucination.”

On leaving the National in 1988, Mr. Hall created the Peter Hall Company, a commercial enterprise that at one time had no less than five of his productions running simultaneously in London.

He also began spending more time in the United States. In 1999 he staged “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Measure for Measure” in repertory at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles, then brought his acclaimed revival of Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus” to Broadway.

In 2000, in Denver, Mr. Hall and his son Edward co-directed a 10-hour adaptation of John Barton’s “Tantalus,” an epic retelling of the Trojan War. And in 2005 Mr. Hall was hailed for his production of “As You Like It” at the Harvey Theater of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

That was a doubly sweet triumph for Mr. Hall, who saw his daughter Rebecca receive standing ovations for her portrayal of Rosalind, the resourceful heroine of that Shakespeare comedy. Showing no signs of slowing down, Mr. Hall returned to BAM the following year with the Theater Royal Bath production of Wilde’s “Importance of Being Earnest,” starring Lynn Redgrave.

Peter Reginald Frederick Hall was born into a working-class East Anglian family on Nov. 22, 1930, in Bury St. Edmunds. His paternal grandfather had worked as a rat catcher on Queen Victoria’s Norfolk estate. Mr. Hall remembered his mother as “hugely ambitious” and in “a state of permanent fury” at his father, a railroad stationmaster with “a sunny, controlled temperament and no ambition at all.”

Both parents made financial sacrifices to give Peter, their only child, the education that they never had, and were rewarded when he won a scholarship to the Perse, a distinguished grammar school in Cambridge.

“They encouraged me to be different and escape,” Mr. Hall said in a 1993 interview, “and from the age of 8 I was conscious I was different and would escape.”

He became an accomplished pianist and developed a passion for drama, especially Shakespeare, whose “Macbeth” struck him at age 11 as “thrilling and blood-soaked and full of witches.” By 14 he wanted to become a director.

The first steps in that direction were taken at Cambridge University, which he attended on a scholarship and where he staged a number of well-received student productions, including Jean Anouilh’s “Euridice” and a revival of John Whiting’s “Saint’s Day” that drew national critics to the campus.

“I discovered at last that I could direct,” he wrote in his 1993 autobiography, “Making an Exhibition of Myself.” “My relief was acute and produced tears.”

Another of his student productions, Pirandello’s “Henry IV,” proved impressive enough to be transferred to the small Arts Theater in London. It was there that his post-Cambridge career took off. He read scripts, directed plays and, in January 1955, at the age of only 24, assumed full artistic control.

Eight months later came a key event in Mr. Hall’s career: his own production of an experimental play written in French and then translated into English by an obscure Irish writer named Samuel Beckett.


Mr. Hall in the foyer of the newly opened Lyttelton Theater, part of Britain’s National Theater, in 1976.

Wesley/Hulton Archive, via Getty images

The play, “Waiting for Godot,” provoked controversy in London, and when it opened on Aug. 3, 1955, it established Beckett as a major playwright and Mr. Hall, alongside Peter Brook, as the most enterprising of a young generation of directors.

The next year he sealed his reputation as a glamorous highflier by marrying the film actress Leslie Caron. In a memoir she described him as “tall, handsome, brilliant, charming, ambitious” and “beguiling.” (The marriage would last almost nine years.)

That year, 1956, he also directed the first of his many productions at Stratford, “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”

His career continued its rapid rise in 1957, when he formed his own producing company, the International Playwrights’ Theater; staged the British premiere of Tennessee Williams’s “Camino Real”; mounted his first opera (“The Moon and Sixpence” at Sadler’s Wells); and directed his first Broadway play (Morton Wishengrad’s “The Rope Dancers”).

By the end of the decade he had sole artistic control of the Shakespeare Memorial Theater at Stratford. It was a bold appointment, for Mr. Hall was barely 28 when it was announced. And when he became director-designate in 1958 he started carrying out dauntingly ambitious plans.

These included expanding Stratford into a year-round operation (it had performed only in summer), creating an ensemble that would perform modern as well as classical works, and acquiring a second home in London, the Aldwych.

The new organization became the Royal Shakespeare Company, a title that, as a friend of Mr. Hall remarked, “had everything in it but God.”

The R.S.C., as it was soon known, was an almost instant success, attracting actors like Peter O’Toole, Peggy Ashcroft, Paul Scofield and Christopher Plummer in productions of, among others, “The Merchant of Venice,” “The Winter’s Tale,” Mr. Anouilh’s “Becket,” Mr. Brook’s original and acclaimed revival of “King Lear” and John Barton’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s trio of “Henry VI” plays as “The Wars of the Roses.”

By 1964 the R.S.C. was a major creative force with an interest in stripping the accretions of tradition from the classics and making them speak powerfully to the present.

Mr. Hall’s round-the-clock efforts at Stratford and the competing claims of Ms. Caron’s film career put irreparable strains on their marriage. They divorced in 1965. (Ms. Caron later acknowledged an affair with the actor Warren Beatty.)

Moreover, the R.S.C., which he directed until 1968, was facing money worries. There were suggestions that it be subsumed into Laurence Olivier’s National Theater Company, which had been formed in 1962. Two weeks into rehearsals for “The Wars of the Roses,” upon whose success the future of the company depended, Mr. Hall had a nervous breakdown.

That surprised those who knew him well, because Mr. Hall had always displayed an imperturbable manner. Few knew that he had often suffered from depression and acute self-doubt and had admitted to suicidal feelings, starting when he was 8.

But the success of “The Wars of the Roses” ensured the future of both the company and Mr. Hall’s career. By 1973, when he succeeded Olivier as director of the National, he had won the R.S.C. a shining international reputation. Only on Broadway had there been a setback.

That was the failure of Mr. Hall’s production of Galt MacDermot’s immensely expensive musical “Via Galactica” in 1972. As an equally spectacular flop, Marvin Hamlisch’s “Jean Seberg” at the National, was to re-emphasize a decade later, Mr. Hall’s forte was not the popular musical.


Mr. Hall in discussion with members of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1965.

Michael Stroud/Hulton Archive

His period as the National’s artistic director, however, was by any standard a success, despite constant tribulations. Exasperated by delays in the construction of the company’s permanent theater, Mr. Hall brought his own revival of “Hamlet,” with Albert Finney as the prince, into the still-unfinished edifice in March 1976.

Seven months later, and seven years after building had begun, he was able to welcome Queen Elizabeth to the official opening: a performance of Goldoni’s obscure “Il Campiello” that was so dull that the monarch was observed yawning. As he confided in “Peter Hall’s Diaries,” edited from notes he regularly dictated into a tape recorder and published in 1983, Mr. Hall was left “deeply embarrassed.”

Worse than embarrassment was to follow. Mr. Hall faced wildcat strikes by the stage staff. Audiences had to cross a picket line to see a production — without décor — of John Galsworthy’s “Strife,” a play that coincidentally involved industrial unrest; a performance of William Congreve’s “Double Dealer” was interrupted by demonstrators shouting “scabs.”

Mr. Hall stood firm, and his opponents backed down, but the events reinforced the perception, common in the 1970s, that the National was an elitist institution that was weakening the rest of the British theater by gobbling up a disproportionate amount of talent and public subsidy.

That view changed in the 1980s, however, when Mr. Hall turned from establishment villain to anti-establishment hero. He did not shrink from putting on Howard Brenton’s “Romans in Britain,” a left-wing play that included a homosexual rape, or flinch at the ensuing outrage. More important, he took the lead in attacking what he saw as the Conservative government’s parsimony toward the arts. A furious Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is said to have asked her arts minister at the time: “When can we stop giving money to awful people like Peter Hall?”

A less driven man than Mr. Hall might have taken things quietly after leaving the National cockpit. After all, he had secured the company’s presence on the South Bank and its reputation for good, diverse work, including productions of plays as different as Pinter’s “No Man’s Land,” with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, and Aeschylus’s “Oresteia,” complete with masks.

He had taken artistic control of the Glyndebourne Festival, in 1984, and personally staged operas there as well as at Covent Garden. And his work on Broadway had earned him two Tony Awards (for Mr. Pinter’s “Homecoming” in 1967 and Mr. Shaffer’s “Amadeus” in 1981) as well as numerous Tony nominations.

His workaholic public life, however, damaged his private life. His second marriage, to Jacqueline Taylor, an R.S.C. press officer, collapsed, and a turbulent third one, to the American singer Maria Ewing, also ended in divorce.

He then married Nicki Frei, a former press officer for the National Theater. She survives him, along with six children: Christopher and Jennifer, by his marriage to Ms. Caron; Edward and Lucy, by his marriage to Ms. Taylor; Rebecca, by his marriage to Ms. Ewing; Emma, by his marriage to Ms. Frei, and nine grandchildren.

The years at the R.S.C. and the National had been hectic and eventful, but Mr. Hall declined to slow down. As he himself wrote: “My engine either functions at full speed or it stops altogether, and then I suffer a truly terrible depression.”

In 1988 he launched the Peter Hall Company, directing Vanessa Redgrave in Tennessee Williams’s “Orpheus Descending,” first in the West End, then on Broadway. A year later, Dustin Hoffman followed the same route, playing Willy Loman in Mr. Hall’s revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” In 1992 and 1993 no fewer than eight of his productions hit London, and he still found time to direct John Guare’s “Four Baboons Adoring the Sun” at Lincoln Center and Mozart’s “Magic Flute” in Los Angeles.

In 2003 he was appointed artistic director of the newly established Rose Theater, so called because it was modeled on the Elizabethan playhouse of the same name, in the London suburb of Kingston. It opened in 2008 with his revival of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.”

Soon after that he resigned to become the Rose’s director emeritus but continued to stage plays elsewhere. In
2011 the National Theatre celebrated his 80th birthday, which had occurred the previous November, with his staging of “Twelfth Night,” with Rebecca Hall as Viola. He used the occasion to mount a robust attack on Britain’s politicians for making cuts to the national arts budget. It was Mr. Hall’s final production at the National; the same year, he received a diagnosis of dementia.

Early in his career Mr. Hall was regarded as an innovative director; but, as he himself said, that was mainly because trying to discover and fulfill a classic playwright’s true intentions seemed a radical endeavor then, “like stripping the varnish off a well-loved picture.” But as he wryly noted in his autobiography, the approach that had won him a reputation as an enfant terrible in the 1950s led the supporters of conceptual directing to classify him as a traditionalist 40 years later.

Truth and clarity remained his paramount goals, and achieving them on stage after much hard work was his principal joy in life. For Mr. Hall, the true striving occurred in rehearsals. They were a voyage into the unexplored and unexpected, as he put it, with himself as “guide, philosopher, friend, conspirator, psychiatrist, actor, scholar, musician, editor, guru, politician and lover.”

“My definition of paradise,” he wrote, “is to be always rehearsing. A Shakespeare play followed by a Mozart opera.”

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