13 December 2010 | Peter Hall

On his eightieth birthday

Sir Peter Hall was 80 years old last week and there was a party for him in the lobby of the National Theatre in London.  Everyone there had reason to be grateful.  In general terms, we have all benefitted from his forming the Royal Shakespeare Company out of the annual festival theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon and establishing a troupe based on the European model: long contracts for actors and a policy of mixing Shakespeare with modern plays which has survived for 50 years.  Then he steered Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre Company at the Old Vic Theatre into the custom-built premises on the Southbank of the Thames, where he returns in 2011 with his latest version of Twelfth Night.

Personally, he changed my life, or at least my career, when he cast me as Salieri in the Broadway production of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus (1980), which introduced me to American audiences and earned me enough to buy the house in which I still live in London Docklands.  Back from New York, he then directed me as Coriolanus when he ran the National Theatre and later entrusted me and Edward Petherbridge to form our own group of actors there.

Meeting up with so many old friends, it was an evening of nostalgia and some relief that we were all ambulant and still employable.  There was Frank Finlay, Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing (1965) when I played Claudio: Peter Gill who gave me my first big part in London in Shaw’s O’Flaherty VC (1966): Eileen Atkins, my wife in The Promise on Broadway (1967): John Woodvine, Claudius to my Hamlet (1972): Michael Pennington, Mercutio to my Romeo for the Royal Shakespeare Company (1976): Michael Frayn who translated Chekov’s Wild Honey (1984) with the director Christopher Morahan: Richard Eyre who directed me as Richard III (1990) and much else at the NT: Stephen Moore, my brother in the NT’s Enemy of the People (1997) and its director Trevor Nunn who at the RSC had cast me as Macbeth, Romeo, Iago and most recently King Lear: Ron Pickup was back hours earlier from filming in India and there we were, with Pat Stewart and Simon Callow, the cast from last season’s Waiting for Godot, which Peter Hall had introduced to London in the 1950’s.

Peter once told me that British actors were all of a kind, members of a large, like-minded company who shared working methods.  Tonight we met up, as if his birthday was ours too.

A thought: Peter was from the lowliest of social circumstances, able to attend his local grammar school and Cambridge University, courtesy, like me, of the state scholarships which have long since vanished in favour of increasing tuition fees and undergraduate debt.  I mentioned this to him and he agreed that, today, he would not be going to university.  Meanwhile the students protest on the streets as best they may.  — Ian McKellen, London, 13 December 2010

Sir Peter Hall, 1995

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