How do you commemorate a theatre director? If theatre, unlike film and television, is of and in the moment, how can even footage of a production give you any meaningful sense of what it was to be in theatre on that particular night? And even if you grant film value as a permanent record it is a record only of one night in a run which could be atypical, and certainly gives no sense at all of what went on the rehearsal room, which surely is where a great director’s alchemy is to be glimpsed at its most potent..?

Peter HallAll these considerations were in my mind as I sat through the preliminaries of a carefully planned and sumptuously performed memorial service for Sir Peter Hall, held in Westminster Abbey on 11th September, exactly a year after his passing, and some seven years after the onset of dementia brought an end to a career that had first sprung to life in 1955 with the premiere of Waiting for Godot and concluded with the two parts of Henry IV at the Theatre Royal, Bath in 2011. Only Peter Brook can boast a career of comparable or longer duration, and their final trajectories could not have been more different.

In some ways the best answer to all these questions over what constitutes a theatrical legacy came first, not last. While the London Philharmonic Orchestra played Tippett’s Fantasia on a Theme by Corelli – baroque, but winsomely quirky in an unspiky, twentieth-century way – screens showed a photo montage of all those productions he had led through over fifty years. The sheer scale of the enterprise, encompassing as it did the grandest and the most modest of venues and the whole gamut of that era’s acting and creative talent, impressed deeply whether or not one had any memory of those productions. This was in itself confirmation of the truth of Hall’s remark that he was fortunate both to know what he wanted to do, and to live in a time that enabled him to do it.

The form of the service reminded us that Hall was perhaps unique in being a formidable member of the theatre establishment and yet also a figure who, in some respects, stood at variance to the main trends of theatre practice as it developed in the later twentieth century. As the founder of the RSC, inaugural leader of the National Theatre on the South Bank, leader of the Peter Hall Company, Artistic Director of Glyndebourne, first director of the Rose, Kingston, and the first English director ever at Bayreuth, no one could touch him in blending administrative, political and bully-pulpit skills. But in all this multiple plate-spinning he never lost touch with artistic leadership and continued to direct by example.

Here, though he was perhaps less successful in theory than in practice, and theatre has not tended to move in the directions he urged. He seems to have had no doubt that his real legacy lay in the textual method and focus he devised for his productions of Shakespeare. Indeed one of his essays on Shakespearean verse was placed on each chair in the Abbey as a separately published memento. The onward march of naturalism has muted this impact in recent years, but there was no denying that among the speakers at the service those who performed most impressively were those who went with the groove of the form in order to find their own individual meanings within its grain rather than in confrontation and crude, shapeless declamation.

First up was Judi Dench reading the eulogy of Antony from Act V of Antony and Cleopatra. This sonnet – for that is effectively what it is – was one of the most affecting moments in the famous National Theatre production of 1987, when all the showy artifice and rhetorical display of the earlier scenes that represented the central couple’s denial of the aging process finally drops away. It was wonderful, indeed, to hear those lines delivered again with such aching simplicity, where the skill lies in the pacing and minute changes of inflection on certain very basic words.

Less successful was Vanessa Redgrave’s rushed rendition of the encomium of faith, hope and charity from 1 Corinthians. Passion there was certainly, and speed is often a good way of breathing life into an over-familiar Biblical reading. But some odd emphases and an absence of pauses to point the text, meant that its more subtle aspects never registered as they should (and do so noticeably, for example, in Brahms’ late musical setting of the same text in German)

Both the two tributes by David Hare and Trevor Nunn were careful and comprehensive but largely lacked enlivening humour or a sense of the power and mischief of Hall’s personality that comes over in surviving interviews. As Alan Bennett says, ‘when we are on our best behavior, we are not necessarily at our best.’ Perhaps the pulpit of the Abbey has that kind of inhibiting respectability that subdues the bohemian strain in theatre-folk. Part of me hoped Rooster Byron might make a disruptive appearance to shake things up a bit….Hall was not a saint and often a discomfiting figure whom you crossed with peril. Some sense of this would have informed and not detracted.

As always in the Abbey the music was inspiring, not least because wherever you sit the acoustic is kindly (unlike the eternal recurrence of the St Paul’s echo!). Whoever devised the service was especially sensitive to Hall’s musical enthusiasms and the extracts chosen served as a reminder of how good he was at combining words and music and turning pure music to original dramatic effect. Thomas Allen rolled back the years and gave us a cheeky version of the Serenade from Don Giovanni, with some refreshingly suggestive and un-ecclesiastical gestures. Britten’s deft, gossamer-light setting of Puck’s final speech from A Midsummer Night’s Dream gave a reminder of how well Hall’s approach to opera extended successfully way beyond Mozart, and, in the most theatrical moment of the morning, David Suchet re-enacted Salieri’s reaction to hearing Mozart’s Serenade for 13 Wind Instruments, as the orchestra wove its threads in and around his speech. This section of Shaffer’s Amadeus, first made famous by Paul Scofield, was the point where words and music were at their most telling in tandem, a moment that gave an insight into what made Hall tick as a director of theatre and opera, and served up the kind of revelation he was aiming for.

Each of the director’s six children, many of whom are distinguished theatre practitioners, contributed a prayer, but perhaps the most emotionally unsparing and honest element of the morning was a grave, reflective unaccompanied cantata by JC Bach sung from the nave screen by the Monteverdi Choir, turning around graciously half-way so that the nave congregation got equal voice-time:

Now my life is ended,

God who gave it, takes it to him.

Not the smallest drop remains in the vessel,

No faint spark will now avail it,

Life’s light is extinguished.

No grain of sand runs through the glass,

It is now ended, it is accomplished,

World good night!

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Tim Hochstrasser
A historian who lectures on early modern intellectual and cultural history at the LSE. He has a long-standing commitment to and love of all the visual, musical, dramatic and decorative arts, and to opera above all, as a unifying vehicle for all of them. He has previously reviewed for BritishTheatre.com and also writes for playstosee. By day you may find him in a library or classroom, but by night in an opera or playhouse…perhaps with a cabaret chaser…