The Times April 04, 2009
- Ginny Dougary

Nudging 80, he’s full of memories of his theatrical past, but the great director’s love of work – and family – is undimmed

Almost two decades have passed since Peter Hall and I last met. The baby that his fourth wife, Nicky Frei, was expecting then is now a 17-year-old bright spark, Emma, who thrills her father with her scholarship and enthusiasm for theatre, and occasionally appalls him with her use of language. Emma Hall’s accolade of “awesome” for a performance of Hamlet by a scion of another notable dynasty, Will Attenborough, made her father blanch. “I said, ‘Don’t use that word. I hate ahhhh-soom,’” he drawls, like a septuagenarian valley-girl .

The junior members of the Attenborough and Hall families will be combining forces in Edinburgh this summer in a late play, Celebration, by the late Harold Pinter. There is something poignantly circular about this cross-generational appreciation of the playwright as it was Emma’s father who discovered and championed Pinter, when Hall was barely in his mid-twenties, after he had performed a similar role for that other towering figure of modern theatre, Samuel Beckett.

So much has been written about Hall in his own right, and among the wealth of his achievements (founder of the Royal Shake- speare Company; 15 pivotal years estab- lishing the National Theatre in its present South Bank home), one can detect an underlying theme of insecurity and self- doubt, which contributed to several breakdowns and thoughts of suicide.

In our 1992 interview, Hall told me that he felt he was unpopular at Cambridge – where he had a scholarship to read English – and was often patronised because he was poor. I ask him now what gave him the intellectual confidence to recognise the worth of Waiting for Godot, a play by an Irishman who was then unacclaimed, when the manuscript landed on his desk in 1955 at the Arts Theatre in London.

“Answer – I don’t know,” he says.

“Except it happened. But when I read the script I didn’t say to myself, ‘This is the key play of the mid-20th century’ because I didn’t. I said, ‘It’s poetic, it’s beautifully written, it’s funny, it’s very arresting. I think it will work on an audience and I think it’s very moving, so we’ll do it.’

“So then you cut forward, and there’s a letter in the mail from someone unknown and it says, ‘Dear Mr Hall, I saw your production of Waiting for Godot last night and I enjoyed it very much. I wonder whether you’d like to look at my new play which I’m enclosing called The Birthday Party, Yours ever, Harold Pinter.’ And I didn’t know who Harold Pinter was because Harold Pinter wasn’t ‘Harold Pinter’ then. But, I mean, what a lucky boy I was to have those two giants.”

The impact of Pinter’s death in December is still all too raw and recent: “I find it quite difficult to talk about Harold because I’m so upset,” Hall says, his voice wobbling for a moment. “I suppose in a way he left us an extraordinary legacy so one shouldn’t be silly and one should see it as constructive, not destructive. But he meant an awful lot to me as a friend and a colleague as well as a dramatist I wanted to serve.”

Does he understand why Pinter lost the urge to write plays and transferred his creative energy to writing poetry?

“Harold’s plays are like most men’s poems,” he says. “And they always came from an inspirational energy. I can remember him saying to me, ‘I think I’ve got a play’, and I’d say, ‘Really?’ and he’d say, ‘Yes, I don’t know what it’s called yet but I’m going away for a couple of weeks and I’ll see if I can write it.’”

Would that be exciting for you when that happened? “Oh, yes, of course – because then you cut to him ringing the doorbell one summer evening and he’d just driven up from somewhere and he’d say, ‘There it is’, and it was The Homecoming, which was the first specific play he wrote for me and the Royal Shakespeare Company, which I still think was – is – his masterpiece.”

Hall says that Pinter was the man “who made me believe in inspiration because he didn’t know why he couldn’t write a play – and he certainly had years without writing one and would write film scripts during that time [collaborating most fruitfully with the director Joseph Losey]. He wanted to write a play but there wasn’t a play to be written until, suddenly, he had something.”

Hall was 61 when we first met. He was 6ft 2in then and shrinking, he had said, with the onset of old age. Now that he is pushing 80 there is something etiolated about his monumental frame. He still has style and is dressed like an ageing Beat poet – black leather jacket, tapered shoes and a rather chic black wool cap. But he seems a bit deflated now and the infectious giggle is less ready than I remember. A couple of years ago he had a cancerous kidney removed but his health has been fine since then.

Does he feel his age? “I get terribly tired, which makes me angry,” he says; so now he has naps and tends to do full mornings, handing over to an assistant in the afternoons. His memory started going at about 60 and, he says, “if it’s possible to forget something I do”. Are you frightened of diminishing powers? “Yes, yes,” he says. “I don’t think it’s happened yet but I will be told – my colleagues will tell me and when they say, ‘You can’t do it any more …’”

Hall has no plans, himself, of letting go any time soon. He has been directing Feydeau’s farce Where There’s a Will, adapted from the French by his wife, for the English Touring Theatre (ETT). Rachel Tackley, the ETT’s director, tells me that what impresses her about Hall is that he doesn’t miss a beat and is alive to every nuance and rhythm of the text.

In June the Peter Hall Company returns to the Theatre Royal Bath for its seventh season there, with half a dozen plays, and Hall will be back in the director’s seat for three of them, including Shaw’s The Apple Cart: “It’s a political play and extraordinarily prescient, from the rather minor level of the Prime Minister saying, ‘You know, what’s wrong with this Cabinet? There are too many Scotsmen in it!’ The audience will think we’ve put that in,” he says with a laugh.

Hall famously voted Tory, “out of desperation”, early in his tenure at the National as a protest against the unions, who seemed hell-bent on disrupting the opening. He reverted to Labour but was not a Blair fan: “I never believed him. We saw him giving a speech on television and I said to Nicky, ‘If he came and did that as an audition piece I wouldn’t hire him because he’s not telling the truth.’

“He’s acting badly and he’s a very bad actor. He’s also got the capacity to be a very good actor but he has to be somehow wired up correctly because he’s very false. The worse one was the Diana [Princess of Wales] funeral. Bad acting … ‘sob, sob’. ”

How about Gordon Brown – not much acting there? “No acting at all – just desperation.” At last, a Hallmark giggle. “No, honestly, I think things are pretty bad – worse than they were when we saw each other by the Avon.”

Our last interview had been rather dominated by intimations of his own mortality after I had heard Hall tell the late Anthony Clare, the psychiatrist, that he feared death every single day. Does he still have that morbid dread? “Oh, yes,” he says. “How can you not? What is it all about? Where do we go?”

Now that he is approaching the end of his life, as he would emphatically not put it – “I could go on for the next 20 or 25 years” is his optimistic position – Hall never entertains those early thoughts of doing away with himself. There’s so much left for him to do, so many people he loves and would hate to leave behind.

He said all those years ago that Frei was the one for him and so it has proved. They have been together now for 19 years: “If you talk to her now she’ll say, ‘I’m the longest-serving Peter Hall wife.’”

His first and third wives, Leslie Caron, the film star, and Maria Ewing, the opera singer, had huge careers of their own. Jacqueline Taylor, his second, was Hall’s secretary and Frei worked in the publicity department at the National. It’s “terribly difficult” when a marriage has two huge egos – “Nicky was trained as a lawyer and has a brilliant mind and should be able to sit down and write that novel or that book of short stories – but she doesn’t because she spends so much time on Emma and me and she makes our lives very, very comfortable.” Perhaps she’ll write a memoir about life with you after you pop off? “Exactly,” he says, only a little uneasily.

He gives Frei the credit for making him less obsessed with work; she has even persuaded him to take the odd holiday. What’s her secret? “She just treats everything terribly calmly and reduces everything to common sense and logic.”

Calmness is a quality lacking in Hall, which is why he must prize it so highly in others. When we talk about his actress daughter Rebecca (from his marriage to Ewing) – the fifth of his six children – he says, “She’s quite calm, quite a different sort of animal to me.”

He plainly adores his children – all of whom have carved their own successful niches in the arts – but he seems to have been particularly besotted with Rebecca as a baby, perhaps because it was the first time that he was a hands-on father. “It was largely because her mother was an opera singer and was a great traveller as a consequence, so there was quite a lot of time when I was the nanny,” he says. Er, house-husband? “House-husband, I’m sorry – get it right!” he smacks his hand. “I don’t mean that Maria was in any sense a delinquent mother because she was a terrific mum – but it had to be done and I loved doing it.”

He goes on: “Rebecca was a particularly beautiful baby, and babies are usually not very beautiful. She was also … passive is

the wrong word … she was very calm, and still is.” At that point, I had only seen her in a Poliakoff television play and Frost/Nixon, where she plays Frost’s decorous and decidedly pukka girlfriend. “Well, that’s no part at all,” her father admonished. “No, you must see her in the Woody Allen [Vicky Cristina Barcelona; she plays Vicky, for which she got a Golden Globe nomination]. She’s terrific in that.

“What’s interesting is that Woody obviously took a great liking to her and fed her lots of extra lines – so she does speak like a Woody Allen character – ‘East Coast ambiguous’ – and she does it terribly well.”

Did she really want the part? “Oh, desperately, desperately. It was one of her ambitions in life to be in a Woody Allen film and I said, ‘Well, not like the recent ones!’ Hahahaha.” Penélope Cruz and Scarlett

Johansson may look gorgeous in the film “but they’re not very funny and Rebecca is”, her father says stoutly.

Later I get to see his daughter in the Allen film and she is, as her father promised, terrific and utterly credible as that “East Coast ambiguous” type. But what, I wonder, is Rebecca Hall’s real accent? “She can be anything you want,” her father says, “but, no, her normal accent is a bit more ‘Essex’ – a little sloppy.”

Oh dear. One daughter talks like a Valley Girl, the other like an Essex Girl. What a disappointment for the creator of the Royal Shakespeare Company. As if. I’ve never interviewed a father who was more obviously delighted by his offspring, from his 52-year-old television producer son, Christopher, to Edward, “probably one of the best directors in this country”, and all the others. At one point Hall begs me not to write about his glowing tributes because it will embarrass the recipients. There is no question that he is proud of what he has achieved in the theatre but as he says, rushing off to meet Emma from school: “Whatever else, at this moment in time what I’m really proud of is my children.”

Where There’s a Will by George Feydeau finishes tonight at Liverpool Playhouse, then is at Oxford Playhouse (01865 305300), April 7- 11; the Peter Hall Company’s residency at the Theatre Royal Bath (01225 448844) runs from June 25 to August 29

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