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Trying to create a company

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I did a production of Pirandello's Henry IV which was transferred to the London Arts because they had a spare couple of weeks, got very good notices. I had a phone call asking me to go to Windsor rep to do The Letter by Somerset Maugham, and as I went off to do that, the Arts Theatre London said would I like a… a very low-paid contract carrying tea, reading scripts and going out to the reps if they wanted me so I could go and… so I could have my cake and eat it. And within a year, John Fernald who was running the Arts was appointed to RADA [The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] and I was asked to take over the theatre. So aged 24 I had my own theatre with the responsibility of producing a play every five weeks bang in the middle of London, and as my very talented son, Edward, who is a great director, has said to me many a time, you don't know you were born, he says, you were so lucky. And I was lucky, extraordinarily lucky, because then once I was at The Arts, came a play one day, and I opened it and it said: Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. I did not know who Samuel Beckett was. I had a vague idea there was some connection with James Joyce. I knew he had a play on in Paris in a 75-seat theatre. I hadn't seen it. The letter said ‘from Donald Albery’, who was a West End producer, he said: ‘No actor in London will be in this play and no director will direct it. Everybody's turned it down. I've seen some of your work so I wondered whether it would interest you’. So I thought, well, I'm clearly very much at the end of the line here, but I read it, and I don't pretend to say that I said to myself, this is the turning point of mid-20th century drama, because I didn't. But I did say, ‘This is highly original, beautifully written, very, very funny, and unlike anything I've ever read or experienced, so it's worth a go’, and Godot changed my life. I mean it… it absolutely brought me my first offer to work at Stratford as a director, Stratford-on-Avon. It brought me the friendship of Tennessee Williams and the rights of his plays in London. It brought me directing Leslie Caron in Gigi, the play. We subsequently married. It brought me a little bit of money for the first time, and it lead in a way, straight to Stratford which is the next part of the chapter. So, I mean, that's all the positive side. The negative side is if you're possessed by desire to do something, the fear that you have that you will not be able to do it, or that the world will not let you do it, is a huge price which you have to pay; so it's not all, you know, it's not all lovely success, at all. And I think if you're lucky, like I was, you're even… even more aware of how easy it is to be unlucky, if that paradox makes any sense. It's a cruel profession. It's no good being okay at it, in the middle. You have to be at the top or not at all.

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.

Listeners: John Goodwin

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.

Tags: Henry IV, Arts Theatre, The Letter, Windsor Theatre, The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Waiting for Godot, RADA, Stratford-upon-Avon, Gigi, Luigi Pirandello, Somerset Maugham, John Fernald, Edward Hall, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Donald Albery, Tennessee Williams, Leslie Caron

Duration: 3 minutes, 23 seconds

Date story recorded: February 2006

Date story went live: 24 January 2008