Sir Peter Hall, founder of Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company and longtime director of the National Theatre in London (from 1973 until 1988), died September 11 at age 86.
He made some of his greatest contributions as a visionary of 1960s theatre, staging the world premiere of Harold Pinter’s Homecoming (1965) and, while still only in his mid-20s, the English-language premiere of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. But his influence in challenging the conventions of realistic mid-20th-century drama and embracing new forms extended far beyond that decade into the present.
Sir Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre from 2003 to 2015, released a statement saying, “Peter Hall was one of the great figures in British theatrical history, up there in a line of impresarios that stretches back to Burbage. Without him there would have been no Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre’s move to the South Bank might have ended in ignominious failure, and the whole idea of the theatre as a public service dedicated both to high seriousness and popularity would not have seized the public imagination. He was a man of great warmth, and mischievous wit. When I became director of the National Theatre in 2003, he was unstinting in his support and always generous with his advice. He was the great theatrical buccaneer of the 20th century and has left a permanent mark on our culture.”
Though his primary impact was felt in the U.K., his influence spread across the Atlantic to Broadway in myriad productions, including the 1981 Tony Award-winning Best Play, Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, and the 1967 Broadway transfer of The Homecoming. Both productions earned Hall Tony Awards for Best Direction of a Play. Hall was nominated for seven further Tonys for a lifetime total of nine.
Hall founded the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960 at age 29, and led the company until 1968. He was appointed to succeed Sir Laurence Olivier as director of the National Theatre in 1973, and shepherded the company from its original home at the Old Vic to the custom-built complex on the south bank of the River Thames, where it continues to operate today. After leaving the National Theatre in 1988 he formed the Peter Hall Company (1988–2011) and in 2003 also became the founding director of the Rose Theatre Kingston.
Among his major works as director were the world premieres of Pinter’s No Man’s Land (1975) and Betrayal (1978), John Barton’s nine-hour epic Tantalus (2000); and the London and Broadway premieres of Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce (1977). Other landmark productions included Hamlet (1965, with David Warner), The Wars of the Roses (1963), The Oresteia (1981), Animal Farm (1984), Antony and Cleopatra (1987, with Judi Dench and Anthony Hopkins), The Merchant of Venice (1989, with Dustin Hoffman), As You Like It (2003, with his daughter Rebecca Hall), and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2010, with Dench).
His other Broadway credits include transfers of Pinter’s Old Times (1971), No Man’s Land, and Betrayal; Brian Clark’s The Petition (1986), Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending (1989), John Guare’s Four Baboons Adoring the Sun (1992), and Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband (1996). His last Broadway work was a 1999 revival of Amadeus.
Hall also broke ground as an opera director. He staged the world premiere of Michael Tippett’s The Knot Garden (1970) and was artistic director of Glyndebourne Festival Opera (1984–90) for which he staged more than 20 productions. Hall worked at many of the world’s leading opera houses including The Royal Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, and Bayreuth where, in 1983, he staged Wagner’s Ring Cycle to mark the centenary of the composer’s death.
Hall also published several books, notably Shakespeare’s Advice to the Players and Exposed by the Mask.
Hall is survived by his wife, Nicki, and children Christopher, Jennifer, Edward, Lucy, Rebecca, and Emma, as well as nine grandchildren.
Filp through highlights of his career below: