A LETTER FROM LONDON: Theatrical Royalty Raises a Glass to Sir Peter Hall

Special Features   A LETTER FROM LONDON: Theatrical Royalty Raises a Glass to Sir Peter Hall
In this month's column spotlighting London theatre, we are guests at a starry 80th birthday party for influential director Sir Peter Hall, and we pop into Love Story and King Lear.

Sir Peter Hall
Sir Peter Hall


It's 6 PM on the coldest day of the year in London. I'm in the lobby of the National Theatre, hemmed in by playwright Tom Stoppard on my left, movie star Rebecca Hall on my right. Standing on my toe is director Trevor Nunn and when I try to extricate myself from the scrum I step back onto something soft which turns out to be the foot of the exquisite Leslie Caron, looking almost exactly as she did twirling around with Gene Kelly on the banks of the Seine in "An American in Paris" in 1951, only more chic. The cavernous lobby is jammed with nearly 500 actors, playwrights, directors and other showfolk and we're all in celebration mood. For this is the 80th birthday party of Sir Peter Hall, the man who, more than any other, invented Britain's Royal National Theatre as director, producer, impresario and cheer-leader par excellence, and, not surprisingly, everybody in the theatre world wants to be here. The party couldn't be on his actual birthday, he explained to me, because he is directing Shakespeare's Twelfth Night at the National with his daughter Rebecca as Viola, and rehearsals were at a critical stage.

Tom Stoppard
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Not only is the whole of theatrical London present, so are all his wives, including the American soprano Maria Ewing, Leslie Caron, and the current one, the beautiful Nikki Frei, Lady Hall. Alongside are all six of his children, including three actresses, Rebecca, Lucy and Jennifer, one stage director, Ed, one television producer, Christopher, and the youngest, Emma, who is a Cambridge undergraduate, and all six of his grandchildren. So the party is, despite its grand setting and intentions, an informal and rambunctious affair with kids running about, playing, and getting covered in chocolate.

This kind of party, private and publicity-free, is rare, even in London, and perhaps only the admiration, respect and affection in which Peter Hall is held by his colleagues could have made it possible. He is the man who discovered Samuel Beckett and directed the first English language production of Waiting For Godot, who founded the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1960 and went on to run the National Theatre when Laurence Olivier gave up the reins. It was he who masterminded the building of the very edifice in which we are standing — the monumental South Bank concrete memorial to theatrical excellence — and then passed it on to those very directors whom he had found and nurtured and trained to succeed him.

Nicholas Hytner
photo by Aubrey Reuben

They are all here this evening, and they all make charming speeches from the heart, in that mixture of awe and affection in which we all hold Peter Hall. First up was the current director of the National Theatre, our host, Sir Nicholas Hytner. He introduced his opposite number from Stratford, the current artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Michael Boyd, who has just overseen a massive rebuild of Peter Hall's first theatre, the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. Then came Sir Richard Eyre, Hall's successor as director of the National, who told funny and touching stories of what it had been like to have been a protégé of the man whose theatrical vision had extended beyond planning to execution to dreams. No matter how ambitious the venture, he said, Peter Hall could envision and enable it. Then came Sir Trevor Nunn, who encapsulated Sir Peter's career in a pithy and very funny word portrait. The four National Theatre directors — Hytner, Nunn, Eyre and Hall himself — all demonstrated in their speeches their individualism, their commitment to the British theatre in general and the National in particular, their flair for the dramatic and their near-idolatry of Peter Hall. They couldn't have been bettered. The champagne flowed, the children ran rings around us, couturier Nicole Farhi (wife of playwright David Hare) and I agreed that we could have done without the music because there were so many fascinating people to talk to and famous faces to gawp at and we realized that, if a bomb fell on the National Theatre, there would literally be no actors, directors or writers left to restart it. What Sir Peter Hall began, in the face of a barrage of complaints, outrage, scorn and obstruction, is now such a pillar of the creative world that to be without it would be unthinkable. His contribution is incalculable. Happy Birthday and Thank you, Peter.

Derek Jacobi in King Lear
photo by Johan Persson

Getting to the National or any other London theatre in this freezing winter of our discontent is turning into a nightmare except, of course, for the tourists and cab-drivers who have a mutual admiration society. For the rest of us, the much-vaunted public transportation service is being stretched by both the financial cutbacks, student demonstrations, and the modernization of the subway system in preparation for the 2012 Olympics. As a result, native theatregoers are left shivering at bus stops and subway stations, often arriving in the lobby of their chosen theatre late, bedraggled and disgruntled. I used to glare at audience members arriving in their seats after the curtain had risen, now I smile sympathetically instead. And it's not as though I can stay home and pull the covers over my head until Spring because there are some fine plays and musicals I wouldn't want to miss. There's a lot of madness around too. At the Donmar, Derek Jacobi's monumental King Lear redefines Shakespeare's most difficult play for a new generation — his slide into madness and senility fitting our modern sensibility about aging, blindness and mental illness.

Over at Trafalgar Studios an unexpectedly fine production of Jean Cocteau's Les Parents Terribles by a young director, Chris Rolls, gives that fine actor Frances Barber the opportunity to descend into a full-scale nervous breakdown while staying just the right side of over-the-top.

Emma Williams and Michael Xavier in Love Story
photo by Manuel Harlan

And at the Duchess Theatre, a musical version, if you can believe it, by Howard Goodall and Stephen Clark, of Erich Segal's Love Story. Madness is just about the only emotional state not on view in this stylish adaptation of the 1969 novel which became one of the most popular movies of all time. Here is love, anger, love, fear, love, disease, love, death, oh, and did I mention love? All right, nothing much happens and what does we already know — a preppy Harvard boy meets an Italian-American child of the people, they fall in love, she dies. But it has tunes and charm and is a perfect treat for the auntie who saw the movie 36 times and cried every time.

(Ruth Leon is a London and New York City arts writer and critic whose work has been seen in Playbill magazine and other publications.)


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