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'Theatre has always been dying'
Peter Hall Theatre director
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One of the interesting things about the theatre is that from time immemorial it's been dying, and it's always dying, and it's always going through some awful convulsion. I mean, when I look back to 1950, '51 when I was starting, there was no National Theatre, there was no Royal Shakespeare Company, there was no Royal Court, there was no Almeida, there was no Donmar. It was the West End, the West End, the West End doing rather middlebrow, middleclass plays; the sort of stuff that you now get for free on television. And that's one of the problems that I think the West End is facing that the smaller theatres – medium to small theatres – that need plays can't afford to do plays and, if you look at the lists, you will see that most of the plays have come from subsidised theatres. And, in that sense, the subsidised theatre is keeping the theatre alive and jolly good luck to it. I think, myself, there's going to be some kind of convulsion in the theatre, some kind of new resolution... revolution. It feels to me as if it's... as if it's time. I feel we've come to the end of a curve; that may be because I'm resisting retirement but it... it certainly feels like an end. I think the beginning, I don't know where it will happen or how it will happen, but I cannot believe that theatre is in any sense threatened because, as our means of communication and our means of entertainment is more and more and more screen-based, I think the fact of going to a live performance with a live person saying will you imagine with me becomes more and more special, more and more peculiar, a bit of hard work sometimes, as compared with the way that the screen does the work for you, but nonetheless very provocative and exciting and unforgettable. And I believe that's... that's going to increase, that's going to last... that's going to last.

I hope Shakespeare will continue to live for another couple of hundred years at least but we have to recognise the fact that Shakespeare's language is becoming more and more ancient and just as Chaucer's language is ancient to us, in a hundred years time people will probably find Shakespeare quite hard to understand. At this moment they don't. If an actor understands it and phrases it correctly he can make an audience understand it, where individually they wouldn't by reading it. And that's exciting. But, if he speaks it badly and he doesn't know what he's saying, then of course it compounds the problem, it just convinces the audience that Shakespeare is un-understandable. So I think a clarification there is... is going to happen, has got to happen, because otherwise you will have audiences wondering what Shakespeare's all about... and the whole thing running down. I highlight Shakespeare because he's the best, and if you can act Shakespeare you can act anything, whereas if you can act anything, you don't necessarily act Shakespeare; it's different. I mean it's the Olympics test – Shakespeare – no question. And I think from that sense, it... it's likely to last another couple of hundred years. The theatre probably will become even more elitist and even more specialised; there's nothing particularly wrong with that. I mean a Picasso painting is elitist, it doesn't invalidate it; it's only one of them. And I think we... we're too keen on watering everything down to a kind of egalitarian sludge and I think that's a great danger which the theatre can combat. In that sense I think we might even surprisingly see theatre move slightly to the right; it's usually nestling safely on the left, but it's difficult to know what the left is now. Well there is no left. There isn't, is there? There are different forms of right. It's terrible, terrible. Well the theatre is... it always will be and it always, except in the Elizabethan days, has been... Yes. And I don't think there's any... the use of the word. The word has got a nasty sound...Yes... but the fact is, that it will never be a hugely popular taste, never... No... I think it can be, but because of that, it's able to do all sorts of things that the other media can't do because they're up there speaking to too wide an audience. Yes, I think that's true. I think it's able to take all sorts of risks and move all sorts of boundaries because it's playing to, on the whole, a sophisticated audience...Yeah... you know...absolutely and I think that's good. I don't think anybody should be ashamed of the fact. No, nor do I, nor do I. But I mean, you say that to my favourite party and you're in trouble. Oh, I know. I know.

Well... I always remember that... you know when we were at the National, and we shut the Cottesloe because we didn't have enough money to keep it open... up to that point, the GLC [Greater London Council] — Ken Livingstone and Tony Banks were there — had been very cool, not to say hostile, to the National as an elitist palace, whereas what they really wanted was, you know, a community centre in the East End where... a community centre in the East End where people could make music together and all that sort of thing. But suddenly, when we did that, I had a phone call saying, you know, ‘What would it cost to... reopen the Cottesloe?’. And it was Tony Banks. I said, ‘About half a million’, he said, ‘Well, Ken and I would like to come and see you and have a chat about this’. So they did and they gave us half a million. And we reopened the Cottesloe and they only gave it because they were just going out of business because Margaret Thatcher had closed them down, and they did it in order to spite her. That's the only reason, and I thought, you know, that's politics for you. I didn't know that...Oh yes... I knew the GLC had given the money but I didn't know the reason... That was the reason; that was the reason. And they had not... they had not been on our side at all before then. No.

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: 1950, 1951, National Theatre, RSC, Royal SHakespeare Company, Royal Court Theatre, Almeida Theatre, Donmar Warehouse, West End, Cottesloe Theatre, GLC, Greater London Council, East End, William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, Pablo Picasso, Ken Livingstone, Tony Banks, Margaret Thatcher

Duration: 6 minutes, 58 seconds

Date story recorded: February 2006

Date story went live: 24 January 2008