THE 60-YEAR JOB: SIR PETER HALL

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On February 6th, Queen Elizabeth II reaches her diamond jubilee – 60 years in the same job. Charles Nevin tracks down six others who have lasted as long ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2012

Sir Peter Hall, at 81, with 60 years of directing theatre and opera behind him, with achievements that include founding the Royal Shakespeare Company, running the National Theatre, introducing the world to “Waiting for Godot”, and conjuring fresh marvels from Shakespeare, has no time for dwelling on all that. “I don’t deal with the past very much,” he says. When I saw him, he was about to leave for Chicago and New York to discuss the future, new projects, exciting projects, but best to say no more, yet.

Surely, now, after all that, there cannot be many unfulfilled ambitions? Sir Peter, at home in his Chelsea kitchen, considers the question. “To do it well,” he replies. He follows this with a pause and then one of his characteristically sudden smiles; but he has already conveyed with economy, in two phrases, how to keep on. It means, too, that it is useless to ask him about the greatest moment of his career, or whether it’s a matter of regret that many of his masterpieces are unrecorded: “I shan’t be here to worry about it.”

If pushed, he says, he can stop working for a month, if he has to, but it’s boring. Relaxation is watching plays and films and going to concerts, what you might call director’s holidays. If pushed, and clearly just to be polite, and worried about sounding “ridiculously pretentious”, he will remember Beckett for you – “a delightful man, one of the funniest men I’ve ever met. He could tell a joke like you wouldn’t believe.” But unhappy with fame: “he was shy and embarrassed and almost wanted to hide”. He will remember the era of Olivier, Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft as a golden age, but one which has continued: the theatre is healthier than ever, in his view.

The contribution to this by Hall, the son of an East Anglian station master, may be unrivalled, particularly if you also consider the careers of his children in the arts: he has six by four wives. Christopher, his son by the actress Leslie Caron, is a television drama producer; Jennifer, Christopher’s sister, is an actress, singer-songwriter and painter; Edward, Hall’s son by Jacqueline Taylor, is a director like his father and runs the Hampstead Theatre; Lucy, Edward’s sister, is a theatre designer; and Rebecca, Hall’s daughter by the opera singer Maria Ewing, is a Hollywood actress and Shakespearean.

Would he have had anything different, another career, banking or business, perhaps? Well, he says, he ran the National Theatre for 15 years, that was a business. “I had to start at 5.30 in the morning if I was going to be a director of plays. I had to have done all the admin by 10.30. Then I could rehearse the play through lunch until about 2.30. There’s no point doing the job if you can’t do any plays.” The play’s the thing.

Shakespeare is the theatre’s Everest, and Hall continues his exploratory mission: this year, with the Peter Hall Company, he directed the early history plays, revisiting his triumphant productions of the 1960s and, at 80, finding new shades and melancholies in Falstaff and his friends and rulers. But he is not keen on comparison, or analysis: “I always think it’s rather a pity that people want to know what directors do, because it’s like asking the cook to expose everything he’s doing.”

But if we wanted to talk about age, he remembered Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies coming to the National at the age of 100 (in 1991) to tell the company that the first thing with the Bard was to trust the words. They were gripped. Hall says his career, from outset to now, has been eased by the elaborate camaraderie of actors: “It’s so sentimental the theatre…so romantic…and really it’s tough as old boots.” Would he resist the application of that description to himself? Another sudden smile: “No.” And now he must continue his preparations for America. At the top of the stairs from the kitchen, he points out a poster bearing a quote from Beckett, the one about trying again and failing better. A very uncomplacent knight.

Tomorrow: Daphne Selfe, 83, model

Portrait by Nick Ballon

Charles Nevin is a freelance writer who spent 25 years on Fleet Street and the author of "The Book of Jacks"