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Remaining true to the classics


Pauses are as important as the lines
Peter Hall Theatre director
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You can then really start microscopic work. I mean, you know… you can spend half a day on two pages, actually getting right to the nitty gritty. Now it will depend on the play… what you're doing. I mean, if it's Shakespeare, much of your concern will be when Shakespeare indicates a half line, a gap… in the text. What is that there for? Does it indicate a move, a piece of physical business? Does it indicate a moment of stillness? Does it indicate a pause, or what? So much of that comes off the page still. If you're dealing with Pinter you have a plethora of pauses and silences written into the text. When I first started doing Pinter actors would say: ‘What's this pause here and we decide where we pause’. And I would say: ‘No, you don't; that pause is as eloquent as a line and I'll show you how’. Pinter's pauses are about the unsaid but if the actors don't know what is… what is unsaid, the pause will never hold and the pause will seem rather artificial, rather camp, rather silly. And I'm sure, you know, you can very easily see Pinter that's drummed into significance by all these pauses being held by actors who don't know why they're holding them. So you have to get a subtext going so the actor knows what's going on inside himself. The pause is a crisis point about the unsayable or the unsaid but nobody after a pause is in exactly the same state as they were in when they went into it. I get people to learn pauses as if they were lines and I remember indeed when… years ago when I did the first performance of No Man's Land with… with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, they both of them came from a theatre which didn't really use pauses very much and didn't understand them very well. So whenever there was a pause the other one thought the other one had dried so they would say: ‘Johnny, is that you?’ or Ralph would say…and Ralph would say… Johnny would say: ‘Ralph is that you?’. And I finally had to have the stage manager rehearse them through so that they said the line and then the stage manager said loudly: ‘Pause’. And finally we got the shape, the form, which we were supposed to end up with.

Now, now we're in deep water. The tradition of Stanislavsky and the tradition of the American Method is that the actor says: ‘Who am I, what do I want, what is my motivation, what is my emotional centre, what is my demand, what is my emotional demand?

[Q] Who are my parents?

Yeah. And they… it'd go on and on and on like that and then they say: ‘Now what do I say?… to be or not… I don't want to say that'. So you… you improvise emotionally without words and then you go and look at the text. So the feeling comes before the form. I have absolutely no doubt that real, credible theatre — I use the word credible, not true, because theatre is not true, there's nothing true about standing on a stage saying somebody else's lines in somebody else's clothes — there can be something credible but theatre that is credible has to, I think, put form before feeling. Because what we've got is the form, whether it be a Mozart aria or whether it be an Aeschylean huge speech to be delivered in a mask, there is a form which sustains the piece and it's the tension between the form and the feeling which actually excites the audience. If you feel, you can't express the form. If Ophelia comes out from the nunnery scene and says: ‘Oh what a noble mind is here o'erthrown’, in hysterics, she's got 14 lines which is very like a sonnet of antithetical analysis of what he could have been and what he is. And you can't do that if you're sobbing your guts out. Inside she's sobbing her guts out and using the words in order to keep control. So the form comes first and then the feeling, and whether you're singing an aria or whether you're working in a mask or whether you're doing Shakespeare's blank verse or whether you're doing Pinter's pauses or whether you're doing Beckett's antitheses they are all formal disciplines. The mask is exactly like the form of the aria or the form of the verse, or the form of the… of the pauses and the writing of Pinter or Beckett. And that's something I've written about and tried to get down into two books about the nature of mask. Because I think mask in that sense is anything formal — the formal discipline. And I suppose that's what my whole life has been built on, that and the search for a company.

British-born theatre director, Sir Peter Hall (1930-2017), ran the Arts Theatre where, in 1955, he directed the English-language premiere of 'Waiting for Godot' by Samuel Beckett. He also founded the Royal Shakespeare Company when he was only 29, and directed the National Theatre from 1973 to 1988. He was at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon for two season from 1957-1959. He also directed 'Akenfield' for London Weekend Television and ran the Peter Hall Company, which has 40 productions worldwide to its name. In 1963, he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) 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: No Man's Land, Stanislavski's system, William Shakespeare, Harold Pinter, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Constantin Stanislavski, Aeschylus, Ophelia, Samuel Beckett

Duration: 5 minutes, 19 seconds

Date story recorded: February 2006

Date story went live: 24 January 2008