Sir Peter Hall's (b. 1930) life has seen him running Arts Theatre, founding the Royal Shakespeare Company when he was only 29, and directing the National Theatre from 1973 to 1988. In 1955, he directed the English-language premiere of 'Waiting for Godot' by Samuel Beckett at the Arts Theatre, London. He was at Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon for the 1957 to 1959 seasons. He also directed Akenfield for London Weekend Television and runs the Peter Hall Company, which has 40 productions worldwide to its name. Hall was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1963 and in 1977 was knighted for his contribution to the theatre. In 1999, he was also honoured with a Laurence Olivier Award.
If he's read the play lots and lots of times and he's talked to the author — if living — and he's studied the author — if dead — then he might be in a position to enter the rehearsal room. I don't myself believe that you should design the play before you've discovered the play and I don't believe you can discover the play without the actors. Now this is not common practice because the accountants have pointed out that if you build them the model of the set well before the rehearsal starts, it can have longer to be built and will therefore be cheaper. And you say ‘Yes, but it might not be right’, and they say, ‘Well, you're going to have to make it right before you go’. Anyway, that is... that is a dispute. Mostly you have to design the set before you meet the actors. What is happy and what is right is that you design the set with the actors and in fact you design everything with the actors. You have final editorial control but in the early days, I think the first time you meet the actors, you're not saying to them, we're going to do the play like this. You say the play is... targeting this area of experience, this area of life; how can we, by reading it, discussing it, finding it together, how can we make that clear? And at that point the play is a rather diffuse object, and as you work on it through the first couple of weeks, it narrows down, diagrammatically.
Now, I now do something which is extremely unpopular with the Stanislavsky/Method brigade. I say to actors: ‘I want you to come on the first day knowing your lines’. Now if you do that, you save a fortnight's rehearsal at a stroke. Also, if you're doing Shakespeare, part of learning the lines is also learning where the ends of the lines are, where the breath pattern is, quite a technical thing. Now, it's much easier to learn lines by wandering about with a book in your hand and remembering that when you go and sit on the sofa you say this line, or when you go... But it wastes time and therefore I now expect actors to come, having learnt it, and we sit round and play it to each other, sitting, discussing. Anybody can discuss anything; anybody can say anything. And we actually find out what the life of the scene is from that absolutely mutual examination. And that can go for five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 days and you... you start to notice that the actors physicalize slightly certain speeches. They... they move or they half get up or, after a bit, they're actually standing up and that is the moment when you need to put it into the set as whatever the set may be, and at that point, it's probably some bits of tape on the floor, gummed down, there's a door and, if you really want to make a meal of exiting, you do that and open the door and push into it. Anyway, the rough spatial relationships are there. If you've been really responsible as a director you will have staged each scene in your book so that, in the event of nothing happening among the actors, you can give a quick diagram staging. But if you do that it is a sign of failure because, at the moment when you begin moving, the actors should know so much about it from their experience of sitting round and talking and acting it and acting it and acting it, that they actually stage it very fluently and very easily out of their own instinct. And occasionally you have to intervene and say, you know, ‘Don't go over there because, if you do, you're masking him’. But they're tiny things, and if it's working well, you can stage a very difficult scene very quickly because the actors know where they need to be and they know how they need to move. And that's because of the past work, not the present work.
Head of Press at the National Theatre (1974-1988), and earlier at the RSC (1960-1974), John Goodwin is the author of a best-selling paperback, A short Guide to Shakespeare's Plays, and co-author of Trader Faulkner's one-man show, Losing My Marbles. He is also editor of the play, Sappho, based on Alphonse Daudet's novel, and editor of a number of successful books, among them, Peter Hall's Diaries, and, British Theatre Design - the modern age.
Stanislavski's system, Constantin Stanislavski, William Shakespeare