Sir Peter Hall has directed scores of classic and contemporary works — plays and operas — in his career as, among other things, founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company (1960), artistic director of Glyndebourne Opera (1989-90) and director of the Royal National Theatre (1973-88), but never was any work as ambitious, exhausting and complex as his 10-hour staging of John Barton's Trojan War epic, Tantalus. The Denver Center Theatre Company production, in association with the RSC, began rehearsals in March in anticipation of its first previews in September. The British director Hall, of course, did not do it alone. He co-directed with his son, Edward, and has an international creative and acting team on his side. Staged in three parts, the postmodern, epic, 15-play cycle — with "three- and four-beat verse," masks, lighting by a Japanese designer, music composed by an Irish composer who is steeped in international folk music — officially opens Oct. 21 in a marathon staging 10 AM-10:30 PM, in Denver. (For information about the epic, visit the DCTC website at http://www.denvercenter.org/tantalus.) Performances at the Tony Award winning Denver Center Theatre Company continue in repertory through Dec. 2 before going on a 2001 English tour that will have a residency in London. As previews were dawning last month, Hall talked with Playbill On-Line about the mammoth staging that may just be his greatest achievement.
Playbill On-Line: On the first day of rehearsal, most shows go through a read-through of the play. I can't imagine what that might have been like for Tantalus, last March. How do you do a table read of a 10-hour — or what you thought at the time might be a 15-hour — play?
Peter Hall: We didn't read through without stopping. We spent about 10 days reading through about 14 or 15 hours of material with John Barton and all the cast, on the basis that everyone can stop and discuss and ask questions whenever they like. The normal read-through I loathe anyway. It's usually just a way of starting and insuring that everybody's read the play. As you well know, the leading actors pretend that they can't read and the minor actors pretend that they're so wonderful that they should be playing bigger parts. Read-throughs are always horrible and I try to avoid them if possible. This wasn't a read-through, it was a sharing of the play with John Barton.
PBOL: My understanding is that the play takes place before The Trojan War, goes through the conflict and ends a decade after the war.
PH: It's actually an examination of a number of the Greek myths and stories surrounding the Trojan War, but it starts now, in contemporary time.
PBOL: I love the idea of the frame of the show — modern women on a Mediterranean beach drinking wine and talking about ancient stories. Was that a Hall idea or a Barton idea?
PH: It was both. I mean, the idea was that the chorus got more and more implicated in the story...they participated in the story as the Trojan Women. You could say it's like "Alice Through the Looking Glass" — Alice has been dreaming of Greek myths and wakes up having experienced an awful lot of them. It allows us to have a modern visual sensibility. It allows the audience to have a touchstone of modernity in the sense that the girls, who are intelligent and probably college students, on a tour of Greece — although it's not specified or literal — they know quite a lot about the myths and they find out a lot more on behalf of the audience.
PBOL: In the six-month rehearsal process, were there cuts and rewrites and additions?
PH: Oh, enormous, enormous. [John Barton] wrote whole new chunks, I edited chunks out, our dramaturg, Colin Teevan, a young Irish dramatist, did a lot of editing. It's been very much a collaborative effort, as something of that size and that scope really has to be. You can't approach something like this and say, "This is the Holy Text and this is what we will do." Quite a lot of it we had to approach pragmatically, to see what was entertaining, what was clarifying, what was working. There's been a tremendous amount of work on the text. This is an adaptation of John's original full text, which he, like all authors, is publishing. This is the adaptation that I'm responsible for. [The posters indicate the event is "Peter Hall's Production of..."] It's a bit like making a movie, I suppose. PBOL: Do you imagine college and professional theatre companies in five years will have access to his full text and will be able to adapt, like they have with Barton's epic, The Greeks?
PH: They'll make their own versions, or do bits of it. You can do the events leading up to the war as one unit. You can do the bringing in of the horse and the sacking of Troy as one unit. The play ends with the trial of Helen to find out whether she was raped or whether she was willing and how culpable she is — did she commit a war crime? You can do that section, too.
PBOL: The trial of Helen wasn't known to me — is it from Barton's imagination or is there a textual precedent?
PH: There is a Euripides play in which Helen is arraigned, but everything is, in a sense, from John's imagination except the facts of the myths. I'll give you a crude example: Everyone knows that the wooden horse was let in [to the walled city of Troy]. There are all sorts of theories and various myths about why it was let in, who let it in and what happened when it was let in. What John has done has said: "The Trojan Horse was let in and Troy was consequently destroyed, what is my interpretation of the events which led to these facts?" It's often — like politics and like war is — quite contradictory. One version of the myth has the son of Hector inside the horse; he was the small boy, the fella who wriggled out of the horse and opened the trap door and got them all out. Another version of the myth has him disguised as a girl trying to seduce Priam, who had a penchant for virgins, thus killing Priam and going on a murder spree. Now, he can't have done both — so which does he do? In Tantalus he goes to bed with Priam.
PBOL: There is some incredibly serious stuff happening in the piece — genocide, for one. The Greeks do slay all the Trojan men. How do you approach violence on the stage and how much humor is in the piece?
PH: It is very funny, there's a lot of very black comedy. I think anybody who finds politics funny or exasperating will like Tantalus. The violence is slightly ritualized, slightly abstracted, but it nonetheless makes people very disturbed. It makes a lot of them look away. War is not a pretty business. But it's not an evening of sex and violence, though there's sex and violence in it, because that's life. The humor is that most generals and most politicians start out with high hopes and end up with low achievements. Politics is the only career where you are bound to fail. Sooner or later, everybody fails.
PBOL: Tantalus has the gouging out of eyes, slayings, violence, but you have said in essays that the piece is also about personal dilemmas, moral decisions, private choices of human beings. I don't mean to reduce it, but it sounds like a great soap opera.
PH: I think that's apt. It is like a great soap opera. Each episode is just under an hour, and it is about a series of dysfunctional families and it is about politics and violence and sexual attraction. And it is about the fact that if you lead any kind of public life, it is quite hard not to be corrupted. Some characters, like Odysseus, are ironic enough to understand that you can't be successful unless you admit corruption. That's pretty chilling and history has plenty of politicians who have been successful by doing just that.
PBOL: In a preview item about Tantalus, I said what you were doing was sort of unearthing the roots of Western storytelling.
PH: We don't know how many Homers there were, or whether he was one guy or two guys, or whether "The Odyssey" and "The Iliad" were written by the same person. They come out of the same tradition where a civilization regards its stories as extremely precious things to learn from and be entertained by, things to tell their children and make an example of: That whole idea of why we want drama. It's exactly the same as children playing in order to help themselves grow up. We go to plays or movies in order to relate our own life experience to the fictions and learn lessons and think about our own lives. We don't just go to plays and movies in order to forget ourselves, I think we go rather to learn more about ourselves.
PBOL: And yet thousands of years later, lessons are not yet learned in terms of human conflict — wars.
PH: Absolutely. Why did we start it? If we started it, why didn't we finish it? Who won it? What did we get out it? What about all those dead?
— By Kenneth Jones