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In Memoriam: Peter Hall

Anthony Hopkins played Antony. Judi Dench played Cleopatra. Tim Pigott-Smith played Octavius. Three of my favorite actors in one production was enough to make a lasting impression, but another talent in this 1987 production of William Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre in London was of equal importance: the man who directed it, Peter Hall.

Hall, who died yesterday at the age of 86, had tremendous influence on the worlds of theater and opera, and on Shakespeare theater in particular. Just his reconstituting the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon as the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1959 (he was 29 at the time), a company of associate artists in year-round repertories, is a beacon that continues to shine brightly across the Shakespearean landscape. Nevertheless, it was through his work at the National Theatre, where he was artistic director from 1973 to 1988, that he became and remains a key influencer in my own Shakespereances.

At a time when many prominent theater directors were repackaging Shakespeare in a variety of conceptual stagings and styles, Hall went in the opposite direction, working to illuminate the bare essence of classical works through textual fealty. He put absolute confidence in Shakespeare's craftsmanship and in his actors' abilities with the verse. It was a radical notion at the time but one that has increasingly come to dominate Shakespearean theater and lead to the more recent trend toward original production practices. Nevertheless, his productions were inventively staged because of his directing skills, and the performances incredibly fresh because of the textual demands he put on actors.

My first experience with a Hall-helmed play was his 1985 Coriolanus at the National Theatre. Ian McKellen played the title role with Irene Worth as Volumnia and Greg Hicks as Aufidius, but my primary take-aways from that production were the two tribunes played as briefcase-wielding lawyers, and members of the audience sitting in bleachers on the stage and playing the rabble. When my parents visited—both huge McKellen fans—I treated them to this Coriolanus in which we all played members of the rabble, and my father got to brag that he acted with McKellen.

Hall's Antony and Cleopatra remains one of my Shakespeare benchmarks as well as one of the National Theatre's most critically acclaimed and popular productions ever. I also saw Hall's three-play contribution to the 1988 South Bank End Games Festival in which the various arts institutions on that side of the Thames participated with concerts, exhibits, and other presentations of end works by leading artists in a variety of genres. Hall, of course, turned to Shakespeare's last non-collaborative works, staging a repertoire of A Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, and The Tempest. The repertory revealed a number of thematic and character links across the three plays, including portrayals of despotism in Leontes (Pigott-Smith), Cymbeline (Tony Church), and, most surprising to me, Prospero (Michael Bryant). I saw all three in two days, but though I had ordered tickets for the first two, I had to wait in line for the daily allotment to see The Tempest. With the two-hour drive from my home and the desire to get in line by 5 a.m., I was operating on little sleep as I watched Cymbeline and then, that evening, The Tempest, which didn't have an intermission. Uh-oh. But I was transfixed by Hall's handling of The Tempest, one of my all-time favorite plays, and when I realized Prospero was moving into the final scene, I was amazed at how fast two hours had passed.

I saw two other Hall productions at the National Theatre: David Edgar's Entertaining Strangers in 1987, pairing Dench again with Pigott-Smith, and Yonadab, Peter Shaffer's follow-up to Amadeaus (which Hall also directed, winning a Tony for its Broadway run). Yonadab starred Alan Bates in the title role and another of my all-time stage faves, Patrick Stewart, as King David. Frankly, I don't recall anything about the former, and I remember being bored at the latter—some texts even a genius director can't lift to life.

But when it comes to Shakespeare, Hall's impact can be measured mathematically in my Top 40 Shakespeareances list: The End Games at number 34, Coriolanus at number 12, Antony and Cleopatra at number 3. I still become transfixed when I recollect each production. I still see them vividly on my mind's stage and, importantly, I still hear their spoken words. Hall gave us Shakespeare at his purest best.

Eric Minton
September 12, 2017

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