The John Tusa Interviews
Transcript of the John Tusa Interview with Sir Peter Hall
The statistics alone are impressive. He has directed 200 plays, he put Beckett's Waiting for Godot on the stage and for years was the obvious director of Harold Pinter. He's run the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, he's founded his own theatre company. He's had four wives, six children and five grandchildren. Margaret Thatcher asked him why the government gave money to people like him. Chris Smith dismissed his criticisms of New Labour's Arts Policy as just the ravings of a bitter old man. For almost 50 years, Peter Hall has dominated the national theatrical scene. For quarter of a century at least, he has been its most controversial figure as well. And like the man himself and his appetites, his ideas and projects are large. The great Shakespearean history cycle, Wars of the Roses for the RSC . The Greek Cycle Oresteia for the National, the nine play epic about the Trojan wars, Tantalus, for the RSC and the Barbican. And he never stops working. Criss-crossing the Atlantic wherever the work takes him, laying about him on the state of the arts, on government policy and the state of theatre. For Peter Hall is by his own admission, obsessional about his profession and unashamedly compulsive about working. His greatest fear, which he's had for years, is of time running out.
Peter Hall, you're the archetypal working class boy, born in Suffolk, your father was a railway man, an ambitious mother. How did that ambition for you, show itself?
What I owe to my parents, is that, although they were relatively uneducated, and I never saw either of them reading a book, they thought that education was extremely important and was 'the way out'. So on a very basic level, I was always allowed not to do the washing up, if I was reading a real book. If I was reading a comic or Mickey Mouse weekly, then I was immediately drafted to washing up. They encouraged me in music, in learning the piano and I don't think they particularly encouraged me to go the theatre, but from the moment I went to the theatre I was hooked. Like many people are and it's difficult to say why.
Did that experience of the working class and the wish to get out, which your parents felt for your and on your behalf, has that been a force that's driven you?
I think it drove me very much in my early years yes. I went to elementary school ... I went to village school and then elementary school and then I won a scholarship to grammar school, where I was called, alongside three other boys, a minor scholar, because we were non-paying. From then getting a scholarship to Cambridge was ... well by then it was, I'm going into the theatre, because by the time I was 14, 15, I wanted to be a director and I'm afraid I did make a plan which I didn't of course, know whether it was going to work or not, but I would go to Cambridge and learn as much about Shakespeare as I possibly could, because I wanted to direct Shakespeare. Not only did I want to direct Shakespeare, I wanted to direct Shakespeare at Stratford , where I had been many times as a schoolboy. You could stand at the back for very little money. So it was ... I mean I didn't know whether the world was going to let me be a director. I didn't know whether I could be a director, but that's absolutely what I wanted to be. And when my director of studies said to me in my third year at Cambridge , if you go on the way you are, you will actually at the end of this year fail, or at the most, get a third. He said, I don't mind if that's what you want to do, because I know what you want to do, I know you want to be a director, and you know, you're telling me that in this last year, you're going to do five productions, which is rather more than a professional could do, let alone a student. And he said, it's my duty to tell you, that you will wreck your prospects.
What did you get?
A two two. Just I think. [laughs] No one, until now has ever asked me what I got.
Now with this saturation in Shakespeare, absolutely understandable, the interesting thing is that you came down to London, you were 24, you were doing jobbing work for what was then the Arts Theatre, and then you got on your desk a play by an obscure Irishman living in France, Samuel Beckett. Can you remember what you responded to in Waiting for Godot when you read it?
Well something of extraordinary good luck had happened to me, because I went from Cambridge to be an assistant to John Fernald at the Arts, and then he got RADA and to my surprise, the owner of the Arts, aged 24 as I was, said to me, would you like to run the theatre and do a production every month. So when Godot arrived on my desk, I was in a position to read the play and put it on. I mean for tuppence of course. I remember reading it and thinking it was utterly originally, I won't say that I said to myself, my God here's the play of the mid century, because I didn't. But I'd never read anything like it because it used the theatre as metaphor, the idea that waiting as a metaphor for life, waiting for something to turn up, and the comedy and the frustration and the pain of waiting, I thought was wonderfully, in the genuine sense, poetic. Genuinely entertaining and I thought it was beautifully written and terribly funny.
Could you say ... could you ever claim that you understood what it was about, or did you just ra-... perfectly understand that there's a whole range of things that it was about?
I think it's a metaphor that to me then, and to me now was so rich, that it's about in a way, like all great arts, about everything and you have to remember, we missed one big factor out of the Cambridge account and that's F R Leavis, the great ...
Teacher of the English. Yes, the great English moralist.
Exactly. Now I was on the other side. I was in the Kings Group and if my tutors had known that I went off to Leavis' lectures and seminars, they would have berated me soundly. And in fact he was the only person's lectures I did attend, because his distinctive way of analysing a text and discovering by their analysis, whether the man was sentimental, indulgent, factious, irresponsible, was a wonderful acid test for a director.
Yes. You didn't have to be a Leaviscite in order to understand that his principles of analysis were immensely useful.
Immensely useful. And he also believed, although he hated the theatre, he also believed very much that the health of a society was dependent on the health of its culture, in an Arnoldian sense. So I'm going very roundabout and I'm getting very pompous, but when I read Waiting for Godot, I think I was capable of understanding whether a text was meritricious or had integrity. And I thought there's nothing lost by doing this because it is a genuinely original piece of work.
What about the actors? Did the actors have difficulty?
Well none of the actors would be in it. I mean everybody I asked said no. It took me an enormously difficult time to cast it and I finally got four extraordinarily brave spirits who decided to try.
And once they tried, did they have difficulty in understanding it, and did they understand it in the end, through the rhythm of the language, rather than looking too explicitly for meaning?
Well I don't think actors can act meaning. I think they can act action, they can act want and they can act the truth of an emotion in relation to each other. Then the audience,out of that, get the meaning. If it's fully done. I mean the meaning of Godot as a metaphor is so complex, that it's finally terribly simple. It's two guys by a road waiting. Waiting for something to turn up. A lift, a man who will give them a new religion, a politician who will give them a new hope for the future, what? And they stand there all day and Mr Godot never comes. And what happens is that life goes by and as they say, it passes the time, and it would have passed anyway is the reply. [laughs) And you know, it is a beautiful extraordinary play, but I, I ... to this day, don't know why it aroused so much rage. You know, Robert Morley saying this is the end of theatre as we know it, which he said in public.
In realising, i.e. making real this play, which some thought obscure, impenetrable and shocking, do you feel that in doing that, you were doing something genuinely creative?
Yes. I was in a new world, in a new country. I didn't entirely know my way. I don't think we designed it well, it had much too much set, because in those days you had a picture frame, we put a picture in it, and actually all that Godot needs is a tree and stone and two guys and a moon and that's it. And it took many years before that kind of minimalism actually was accepted in the theatre and done as a matter of course. It completely changed my life, it brought me a play in the post from one Harold Pinter who'd seen it, it brought me Tennessee Williams ringing me up and saying, you can do my plays in London if you want. It brought me Lesley Caron who was my first wife, who wanted me to direct her in a play because she saw it. It took me to Stratford to do my first Shakespeare play, and it earned me a bit of money for the first time, because it was supposed to run for a month at the Arts and it ran for a year and a half in the West End . And it also of course brought me the friendship and a relationship with one of the major geniuses of our age, Sam Beckett.
Of course it then made, I mean not inevitable, these things only look inevitable when you look at them later, but your move to Stratford to the Shakespeare Theatre in 1960, you were just 29 and Lesley Caron your wife, begged you not to do the job. Now was she right in her own terms, but wrong in yours?
Yes. She was right in her terms. I mean I was asked in 58, I was asked in the same month, whether I would like to have a trainee director's contract at MGM in Hollywood or go to Stratford and direct the festival. And Lesley said to me, you know, she was under contract to MGM, she was a huge international star at that time, her career was in America . She said, how on earth are we going to combine this. And I think she was right, in terms of our relationship and our marriage.
But in terms of your career, you were absolutely right to say Hollywood and all that is not the way, you have to find your way, you want to find your way through work on the stage?
Well it was what I'd always wanted. I'd actually always wanted to work at Stratford and the thought of actually directing Stratford was something that was so near to my heart, that I couldn't possibly not do it.
Did you come in as a radical?
Well there was a lot ... I remember, a lot in the press at the time, what is this... who is this young man. I mean he is avant-garde, he does Beckett, he does Waiting for Godot, he does Tennessee Williams, what does he know about Shakespeare? And I quietly held up my Cambridge credentials and talked of F R Leavis and all that and hoped for the best.
But did you want to change........? [over talking]
Absolutely. When you're 27, which I was when I was asked to do the job, then you don't have any great risk in things do you? And I did say to Fordham Flower who was the extraordinary maverick chairman of Stratford , look I heard myself say, I don't want to come and run the Stratford festival at five plays each year for a short season with who you can get. I want to form a company, I want to put them under three year contract. I want a theatre in London so we can do other plays, other than Shakespeare, because unless you're alive to modern drama, you can't be alive to classics. And you've got £175,000 in the bank from long, long savings over the years and I would like to spend that to see if I can convince the world that a company and an ensemble is what is needed. The board was entirely against it, and Fordy listened to me all one night in Leningrad , where we were on tour from Stratford in 1958, and he said to me at the end of it, I think you're completely mad, but what you say makes sense, so I'll back you. And he did, through thick and thin. And he said to the board, I want to do this, we're going to do it, and we did it. And it was very, very difficult and very rough, but my other political point to them was look, the National Theatre is coming. Larry Olivier is going to do it, it looks as if it will be here by 1963 and I know that because he asked me to and join him on the enterprise. And I said, really I would sooner go to Stratford and be my own boss, but that you know there were going to be two National Theatres if Stratford were to survive, otherwise it would simply become a tourist attraction.
A little provincial back water.
Yes. And I think that frightened the board and made them perhaps shyly and grumpily and insecurely, more able to withstand Fordy's force. But he was extraordinary. I mean we didn't have any business plans and we didn't have ...
... no, didn't have any of those things that you have to do now in order to do anything revolutionary. We just went and did it. And after three years, the Arts Council said, here's a little money.
I mean I'm certainly affected by rose tinted spectacles in this, but I mean I remember the first years of the company at the Aldwych and surely the Cherry Orchard with Ashcroft , Tutin , Dench, Gielgud . I mean that seemed an absolutely unsurpassable performance.
Michel St Denis directed it well. Wonderful. I mean that was the other thing, you know, I've always had, some would say, an unreasonable uncanny apprehension, that if you're head of an organisation, the best thing you can do is to get people who you think are better than you, because to do the opposite is very, very foolish.
And then of course, hence Brook's King Lear with Scofield,......
Well I got Peter Brook and Michel St Denis to join me and I was a very lucky young man because of a few great people, like Brook, like Michel St Denis and above all, like Peggy Ashcroft, who was the first actor to sign on in the company and without whose strength, I don't think I would ever have made it, because where she led others follows. You know, we had a wonderful group of people. We had young actors as they were then, like Ian Holm, David Warner, Judy Dench, Dorothy Tutin, Peter O' Toole.
Soon, well within six or seven years of going to Stratford , you were going into the first of your over-stretch periods, which you've been very candid about. You were cutting a film called, Work is a Four Letter Word, your marriage with Lesley Caron was breaking up, you were trying to direct Scofield and Vivian Merchant in Macbeth. By your own admission it was a catastrophe artistically and you got shingles as well. Did you have to admit to yourself and do you admit now that at that stage certainly things in your life were hopelessly out of balance?.
Yes this is 67/67, they were, they were. And I mean it was partly because I was going through a crisis actually about the RSC which in effect I had been rallying for ten years. And in my heart of hearts wanted to go. I was starting to see Shakespeare productions coming round which I believed were perhaps not as good as when we'd done the play seven or eight years previously and although Shakespeare is pretty abundant by most people's standards, 37 plays and the great ones do keep coming round, I felt I had lost my obsession and my impulse.
It was a tread mill.
Yes. I mean I do regret it. I think I made one great mistake. I should have said to the board, can I have a year's sabbatical, I'd done nearly ten years.
And then stayed at the RSC?
Yes, I should have stayed at the RSC. But you know, fate gave me a brilliant, brilliant successor in Trevor Nunn. I left in six weeks, having got him the job and I've never done anything better in my life than that.
So it's both a great mistake and also a very happy and important transition?
Yes. Because what he did with the company was magnificent and I think he's a very great director and he's remained a very great friend and I admire him very much. And I was very fortunate. I've done two things in that respect, of which I am very proud. Which is getting Trevor Nunn the RSC and then when I left the National, getting Richard Eyre, because I do think your successor is extremely important. It was important that crisis, because I think it did give me a limit and an understanding of limit. Thereafter I think I managed myself and my time better. It doesn't mean to say that I didn't do things that failed, I certainly have done plenty. But once that 67/68 crisis was over, I knew far more how to pace myself and actually the secret to me was preparation. Providing one had time to prepare, you could take on a tremendous amount.
But you see, by 1973, surely you had another of these crises, you were shooting the film of Ronald Blythe's village saga Akenfield . You were rehearsing The Tempest and suddenly you got into a terrible panic that neither of them was any good. So doesn't that suggest at least by 1973, you still hadn't learned the lesson of what limits were?
No I don't agree with that actually.
I think that's what you said in the diaries,........
No, no, no ...I mean I was terribly frightened that it was ... I mean The Tempest was the first production I was doing with the National Theatre and it was with Gielgud and it had to be terrific and it wasn't. It was all right. It wasn't a catastrophe and Akenfield, I remain extremely proud of . So although I was very frightened that neither of them ... one is always frightened, I mean I don't go into work now thinking, this is going to be alright. I go into work saying, is this going to be alright? I mean the myth about me that I take on too much is I know extremely common, and I have done, but I don't think I've done it as much as people say I have. It's just that I like working and most people don't. [laughter]
[ laughs] We must say something about the National Theatre, but I want to talk about politics as well. It reads as if the question of succession from Laurence Olivier to yourself was both very difficult and sometimes you said, that for Olivier to get rid of his power, that he did it in a Lear-like way, divesting himself of position and authority at great speed and of course with all the anger that Lear has inside him, so the anger and the temperament was there to in the transition was it?
It was very difficult. I mean I was from the other side. It was almost as if I crossed the floor of the house, going from the RSC to that National. The National in the estimation of the board, did not have a successor. That was some of the people at the National would not have agreed with that. They thought they were the successors and you know, when I, when I was first approached, I said, what does Larry think and they said, you can't talk to him, he's a very sick man at the moment, and I said, well I really don't want to take this any further until he can be talked to and we get his clear ... and nine months elapsed with nothing happening. And then I received a telegram from Olivier, which in very flowery language, welcomed me and said what a pleasure it was to him and ... well we were quite friendly, we'd worked together and all that. And it couldn't have been more welcoming, come round and crack a bottle of champagne and I did, and you know, within 24 hours he was addressing the whole National Theatre Company saying, I didn't want this, this is a man from the other side and Ken Tynan was saying, you can all go on strike if you want.
Oh yes. So that was what I went into I mean I honestly tried,.... without Oliver, we wouldn't have a National Theatre.
But he should have gone, he should have made a clean break shouldn't he?
He should have done, but on the other hand, he didn't want to and I was trying to preserve a situation where he would lead us into the South Bank. That was what my object was?
But weren't you wrong there, no doubt for the right reasons, but when the break came maybe you should have lived up to your own supposed reputation and said if you want me to lead this thing, I will lead it and I will lead it now, and you the board, have to manage the transition from Oliver. Brutal, but probably necessary.
I couldn't have done that because the man was too much of a God in many respects and he was so extraordinary. He was also a monster. I mean he was like most of us I suppose, all things. I will admit what you just said crossed my mind, but it was impossible for me to do it. It's interesting actually, looking back on it. When I was asked to do Stratford , I was perfectly ready not to get the job if they didn't meet these extraordinary terms, which included changing the company's name to the Royal Shakespeare Company incidentally, it was the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. And I was ready for that, but I could not have done that with the National because of Larry, because I think of my belief of how important for the future the National Theatre was to all of us and to the profession.
So you needed continuity, you needed to display that continuity?
I felt so. And it was hell, it was really, really hell.
Because apart from the comparison with Lear, I think you also said that really the end of Oliver was like the end of Stalin.
It was, it was. And you know, there were several people there who thought they should have the job and I made another mistake in trying to keep them on for continuity and I was really keeping people on who wanted to see me fail. Not succeed, so ...
Let's talk about what sort of director you are because anybody( ?] has seen you, we don't know, all we can see is the results. What sort of director do actors say you are, as between one who directs and tells or one who indicates and draws out, assuming that those are certainly two of the options, maybe not the only ones.
It's very difficult. It's like asking you to describe yourself. I don't know what kind of director I am. I know when I'm directing well because I'm thinking on my feet and I'm feeling on my feet. I'm totally relaxed physically. I'm not tense. I'm not saying to myself, what ought I be doing, I'm just doing it. So it is spontaneous in that sense, like an actors response should be spontaneous in rehearsal. I don't go into rehearsals saying, this is the way we're going to do it. This is the period, these are the designs, this is how it is and it means this, because that makes the actors feel they're in a revival and they're not as good as what's in the directors head. I think it's my job to create an atmosphere in which people create and perhaps do things that they haven't done before, stretched themselves and in that period of finding, of discovering how to do the play, anything goes, and you must create an atmosphere in which an actor can be very bad and can make a fool of himself, because if an actor feels I'd better not try that because the director will make some remark or bawl me out, then you inhibit the whole rehearsal process. And that goes on for three or four weeks until the editing process, which is the last ten days or a fortnight when the director has to be the man who decides and he has to say, that's very nice, but it's not necessary, so we won't do it. And he actually edit and if you have a consensus amongst the actors, that editing process is something that they want and they follow and after all a group of actors have to be very faithful to a production. Every night, they go onto the stage and recreate it.
Without your being there to [over talking]
Without me being there, exactly. And isn't it extraordinary, if it last two hours and 37 minutes, that is what it will continue to last. A bad production will suddenly put on eight minutes, or suddenly take of five minutes.
Is that one the signs of a bad production?
Yes, very much so. Whereas a really good production varies almost not by a second.
Do you mean that you don't go into this process with some idea of what the end result might be?
Oh yes I do. And I can't even explain what that is. I know when I am ready. It's an instinctive gut reaction. If it's a period play, I need to have a lot of historical knowledge, a lot of background knowledge. If it's Shakespeare, I need an enormous amount in my head, which I will probably never share with the actors. I mean, actors do not need a Shakespearean scholar in the rehearsal room with them. But they do need somebody who says, this is what the lines means, this is where you breathe, this is where you accent the words, because that's the way he's written it. This is the rhythm of the line. They need that. And then they need the age old thing of an actor, what does the character want, what is the situation he's in, what is he going to do, what is he feeling, how are we going to express that, but you need to know. I think you need to know ... you take a group of actors on a journey and you're not quite sure where you're going to end up. But I think you have to have an approximate idea, of course you do.
Is this sense of process particularly cute with say, the plays of Harold Pinter?
Yes. With plays of Harold Pinter, I mean he writes with such precision and such accuracy, I mean he has actually said to me that it was a joke, but he played it absolutely straight ... he did ring me up once and said I've got a re-write on page 37 and I said, really, right I'll get it and I said right, I've got 37. And he said, third line, cut the pause. [laughter] You know, everybody thinks this is ridiculous, but I mean that is a perfect sign that the Pinter pauses are there, they're very calculated, they have a purpose. You've got to find out what that purpose is. What the journey is through the pause. So if you do what Harold Pinter writes, you'll get very near to what he is. But finding out exactly what he writes, the balance, the antithesis , the rhythm of the lines, the difference between a pause and a silence, which is, silence is a big crisis and is much bigger than a pause. They have to be filled. If they're not filled, then you have pretentious drama with actors just stopping because the author said so.
Is the rhythm of the language in Pinter and also is the very simplicity of the words a problem for the actors, because they don't have to say, rich language, it's incredibly spare language and to find the overtones and the spareness, must be its own challenge?
I think that's true. It's spare, bit it's also sometimes very vivid in vernacular terms. I mean it's, it's ... I mean most of Harold's writing is based, based on a cockney base and also, most if it is about kinds of warfare between characters and the whole cockney idea of taking the piss, you know, which every taxi driver will tell you, that's essential to cockney comedy and that's essential to Pinter comedy. And the essential thing about taking the piss, is that the piss whose piss you're taking, mustn't suspect that you're doing it. If he does, then you've lost. But, the, the underlying thing of Pinter's plays, with the spare language, and with the, with the vernacular comedy, is enormously violent, emotional, melodrama and when I'm directing Pinter, I often do the scenes where I say to the actors, right. Now we know what's underneath, play it now and show it. In other words, shout, scream the lines. Show your emotion, and once you've released that, you then bottle it and contain it ...
And then you can throw it away.
Well you put it inside you. It has to be inside you otherwise the play is empty. And the audience see it inside you. You don't have to reveal it, but you have to have it.
And playing Shakespeare, you feel very strongly don't you, that the tradition of speaking Shakespeare and not speaking it necessarily in a poetic way, but finding meanings in those devilishly complicated words. I mean, I sometimes find that the first 15/20 minutes of whatever play I'm watching, unless I happen to know it very well, a Shakespeare play, I'm thinking, my God, this language is incredibly dense, will I ever come to terms with it, and of course I do. But what sort of disciplines, what sort of skills could you put over to make it intelligible?
Well Shakespeare tells you what the rhythm of the line is, when to go fast, when to go slow, when to come in on cue, when to pause, which words to accent. There are a whole series of clues which are written into his versification, which are not my invention. I was taught them by George Rylands at Cambridge at the Marlowe Society and then most importantly by Edith Evans who was taught by a man called William Pole, who was a great revolutionary Shakespeare director who talked Granville Barker, and he thought that the whole of late 19th Century Shakespeare, with its bombastic, very slow, very rhetorical, very sung delivery, was completely un-Shakespearean and not at all about speaking Shakespeare trippingly on the tongue - which went all the way back to Garrick and Betterton . So I feel part of a line of things. As I think a lot of us do. I mean there are about 50 actors and half a dozen directors who know what I'm talking about and it is still alive. For instance, just a quick example. The first line of the Merchant Venice, "In sooth I know not why I am so sad. Now if ... that's an iambic. "In sooth. I know. Not why. I am. So sad". If you say it quickly, "In sooth I know not why I am so sad." You can't get it over. 25% of Shakespeare's lines are monosyllabic. One syllable lines, and that's an indication to the actor to slow up, to spread. Why? It's his decision. But that's the end result, like a line of music. In sleuth, I know not why I am, so sad. Alliterative words, sooth, so, sad, are the emotional words that you accent. That's two rules in one line.
In all three playwrights we've been talking about, Beckett, Pinter, Shakespeare, you've come back very quickly, or started with rhythm. It's the rhythm of the words. It is in Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass, it says, if you look after the sounds, the sense will look after themselves. Now there is an important element of that in therefore what you do isn't there?
Well there's an element of that, because if you look after the sounds, the sense does look after the sounds providing the sounds are the right ones. If the sounds are laying on a varnish of extra emotion or attitudinising or melodrama or whatever, then the sense goes, for instance, if Ophelia comes out of the closet scene and says to the audience, "oh what a noble mind is here or thrown", she speaks a sonnet, and if she does it in hysterics, which she's feeling, you can't understand a word of it, and you can't understand the intricate nature of the language. What she's doing is using the language in order to contain the emotion. A bit like Pinter again. Certainly, all this is related to music and to rhythm and as a director, I am very well aware that I hear before I see, so I have tried to make myself see all the time, because I am aware that my musical, and verbal and rhythmic sense is much more instinctive.
But of course, when you come to producing, director Opera and you were Artistic Director at Glyndebourne for many years and all that, the one thing you cannot do is shape the sounds of the words.
No. [over talking] timing.
So how ... [over talking]. No, nor the timing. So how then do you interpose your role with the actors, with the singers, to help them to realise things ... [over talking]
Well I don't think it's any different. If you sit around and take a scene of Shakespeare's to pieces, you will give the actor a certain number of responsibilities of spreading this line, of slowing up here, of pausing here, of accenting here, which is exactly like a score of music.
But the conductor does that bit for you?
Well yes he does, but usually it's the music staff that do it before the conductor comes near it.
Fine, but it's not you?
No. But ... but in ideal terms, the conductor is there when you start rehearsing and because of what he's doing, I adjust and because of what I'm doing, he adjusts, and we make an amalgam together. Which is why directors have to be very careful about which conductors they work with. Because conductors who come in at the last minute and just tap the stick and say, I want everybody to see me and look at me all the time, you know, simply ruin everything.
Would you call yourself overall, a radical director?
I don't know what a radical director is.
Oh, somebody who is really producing very radical perceptions and ways of looking at familiar plays.
That is not my conscious aim. Sometimes I wake up and find I'm accused or I'm praised for doing that. But that's not why ... I start off by saying, let's look at Hamlet at this particular moment in time, with this particular cast... the place, what does it say to us? Let us find out what it is, but in finding out what it says to us, we mustn't abuse what it is. That's the paradox and that's the balance. And sometimes, you know, I did a famous Hamlet in the 60s with David Warner, which I woke up and found was called the Flower Power Hamlet, and the flower generation took it to its heart and it ran for two and a half years and was enormously successful. Because he was a young student with a very long floppy scarf around his neck.
But you hadn't set out to say, my concept of this play is the flower power Hamlet?
Not at all, not at all.
So the very idea of producing, as the Germans say, "Ein Koncept Produktion".....
Oh I couldn't bare it, I couldn't bare it. When I did The Ring in Bayreuth, I was constantly being asked by the German press before it opened, what is your concept and I kept on saying, I won't know until the opening night, and they thought I was being fecetious or irresponsible or unprepared.
Latterly, you had this reputation for being somebody who was fully engaged in the politics of the arts and [unclear] between the arts world and the government. Why did you feel that you had to take it on when all your colleagues, the Trevor Nunn's, the Richard Eyres etc have by in large either not done it, or done it in a completely different way?
I think we live in a democracy. I can't help keeping my mouth open. [laughs] However hard I try to shut it. I believe passionately that if children have arts at school, have music at school, have drama at school, they will enjoy those things when they grow up and I think people who expose themselves to the greatest artists and the greatest art, are likely to be richer human beings, they may even be less violent, less dogmatic, less stupid, less prejudiced. I am not a believer in religion, but I do believe in art. I think Shakespeare and Mozart have done a great deal for the human spirit. I think the legacy of drama, the great plays, seven or 800 of them is probably the greatest library of humanist thought and perception that exists. Not many plays tell you to go out and murder people. Not many plays say go out and be mean because there is no morality. The act of drama is essentially moral and I believe in that. And I think it is a foolish, stupid government, whatever its complexion, who doesn't realise that the arts feed into everything. They make our broadcasting better, they make our perceptions better. They cost nothing on the national scale, and because the majority of our politicians of both colours, have got one eye on easy popularity, they don't want to be seen to be men of taste or women of perception, they think the arts are dangerous and elitist and of course the arts are elitist, because they're the best, because they're extraordinary. So I thought it was important to sound off about it. I don't know whether I've done any good or whether I've done any bad.
Have you ever thought that it has been counter productive? I mean when you have got Margaret Thatcher saying, why the hell are we paying this fellow Hall, there must be a number of courtiers in Whitehall who are saying, well maybe if the Prime Minister doesn't want us to pay him, we shouldn't. There's a real danger of counter reaction isn't there?
There is, but I also think it's one's duty in the democracy to have debate. And I think one of the problems about payment is that it's apathetic towards arts, education and broadcasting and I think we owe it to ourselves to actually regard our culture as something extremely precious, but we don't.
But your critics would say, yes, but you are completely overlooking the high standard of writing, scripting, performance for example, in television soaps. In 50 years time, people will look at these great narrative stories of every day life and say, A, these were creative, B, these told important stories and C, they spoke to a majority with a directness which going to the theatre, clearly does not have the same effect.
I don't dispute your soap comparison, I think that's fine. But where do those actors come from, where do those directors come from, where do those writers come from? Largely, through the theatre.
Yes, but if you want the theatre to be more than just the training ground ... [over talking]
I know, I know, I know, but if you want to know about Ibsen , Chekhov, Congreve , Shaw, Shakespeare, can you see any of it on television? Certainly not. Not any more.
And why does that matter?
It matters because it needs disseminating. You and I know our Chekhov, but people in their late teens now, don't. Does that matter? Yes it does, because they're bloody good plays and they're extraordinary plays and they're universal. And art is universal and eternal and needs protecting and needs disseminating. Culture is central. And it can be funny and it can be low brow, and it can be ... it, it, doesn't have to be in any sense upper class. I mean there's a terrible confusion here that the tabloid press go on disseminating.
You think it's a deliberate confusion? I mean it's interesting to see relics of the old class warfare cropping up, so to say in the war against culture.
Yes, I think it is a deliberate confusion. It's a pursuit of popularism, which I think is extremely misplaced.
In your last few years, since you left the National, you have searched for this ideal of your own company with whom you could do a repertory of plays, and you had that for a brief period at the Old Vic, and then that suddenly collapsed and the theatre was sold you behind you and then a further deal didn't work. Just say briefly, what matters to you about this ideal, which I suppose you've had all your life, of the company of actors working on a repertoire of plays? What is it about the company that really appeals to you?
Well if you work in a company, you become better than you know you are, you support each other. Actors always say how wonderful to be in a company. It's not just liking each other, you know how you dislike each other, it saves time. I observe that all advances in the theatre, whether it be Shakespeare, whether it be Brecht, whether it be Chekhov, whether it be the group theatre in America , have always come out of companies. If I may plead, I think the little mark that I made with the RSC in the 60s, in that seven years was because the company was a constant. So we were able to develop a style, we all spoke Shakespeare the same way, that was the style. So I know, and I've always had this dream, of one small theatre, four of five plays a year, 15 or 20 actors, well paid. Not doing us a favour by coming to the Donmar for £250 a week or going to the National Theatre because they can afford it between films. I mean our theatre is subsidised by actors. So I want the actors in this group to be properly paid. And I want to develop a handwriting and a style, and that's really why I started the RSC, it's what I hoped to do at the National and you can't do it at the National because you've got three theatres, a remit of drama from Aeschylus to David Hare and Mark Ravenhill. How can you make a style out of that? That's Harrods. It's a huge, huge emporium of drama. So, I have never done it, except briefly at Stratford during those few years and I am as far away from it as ever. So I haven't ... if you said to me, what are my regrets, it's that I haven't run a company. Here's a paradox, I was on the brink of a situation in America , which gave me exactly what I wanted to do in these last years of my life, which was partly research, partly teaching, but centrally, a company. And that disappeared like so much else on September 11th. Because the money's gone.
You've written that when you hear yourself interviewed on radio or television, you hear a person whom you only half know. Do you think you'll feel the same with this interview?
Thank you very much.
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