Director Peter Hall, A Champion Of British Theater, Dies At 86 : The Two-Way Hall ran two of the most important theater companies in England — the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. He directed Waiting for Godot and Amadeus, among dozens of plays, old and new.
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Director Peter Hall, A Champion Of British Theater, Dies At 86

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Director Peter Hall, A Champion Of British Theater, Dies At 86

Director Peter Hall, A Champion Of British Theater, Dies At 86

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

British theater director Sir Peter Hall died on Monday. He was 86 years old. Hall ran two of the most important theaters in the U.K., the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. He directed "Waiting For Godot" and "Amadeus," among dozens of plays old and new. Jeff Lunden has this appreciation.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: He may have ended up the grand old man of British theater, but Sir Peter Hall came from modest beginnings. He was born in 1930 in Suffolk, England. His father was a railway clerk, and his family lived in a house without electricity. Hall was so in love with the theater that during the Blitz, he used his father's railway pass to see productions with actors like Laurence Olivier, as he told the website Web of Stories.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETER HALL: I came to London by myself aged 14 with the war still on to go to the theater.

LUNDEN: After attending Cambridge University, he began directing plays professionally in London. When Hall was only 25, a producer handed him a script that many other directors had turned down. The play didn't have much of a plot, but it turned out to be one of the most important dramas of the 20th century, Samuel Beckett's "Waiting For Godot."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HALL: 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 'cause 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.

LUNDEN: It was a sensation. And overnight, Peter Hall became the hottest director in London. He was invited to work at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. Two years later, he was asked to run it. Hall renamed it the Royal Shakespeare Company, or RSC, and theater critic Matt Wolf says the young director's approach gave the old theater a vitality and purpose.

MATT WOLF: What he was saying was not only Shakespeare has relevance now as opposed to just then but also that the company ethos is very, very important.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE WARS OF THE ROSES")

JANET SUZMAN: (As Joan la Pucelle) I am by birth a shepherd's daughter, my wit untrained in any kind of art.

LUNDEN: Janet Suzman in "The Wars Of The Roses," one of Hall's biggest hits at the RSC. The RSC is still one of the most important theaters in the world, and Hall did that by hiring actors and directors for not just a single play but an entire season, kind of theatrical team building. And some of those team members were a young Ian McKellen and Judi Dench. He did much the same at his next post, the National Theatre. But it wasn't easy. Hall continually tussled with the government over funding even as he turned the National into an artistic powerhouse.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HALL: First six or seven years were tough because we were getting something established again with great opposition apart from the public. The last years were very satisfying and very happy.

LUNDEN: Part of that happiness came from directing and presenting new plays. Throughout his career, Hall worked closely with authors like Harold Pinter and Peter Shaffer, whose play "Amadeus" about Mozart started at the National and became an international sensation.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "AMADEUS")

PAUL SCOFIELD: (As Salieri) It seemed to me that I had heard a voice of God and that it issued from a creature whose voice I had also heard. And it was the voice of an obscene child.

LUNDEN: Hall continued directing plays and operas around the world until he retired in 2011. He had four wives and six children, all six of whom work in the theater, including his daughter Rebecca. Sir Peter directed her in several plays towards the end of his career, says critic Matt Wolf.

WOLF: He got a second lease on life from the entry into the profession of his daughter Rebecca, who of course has a whole separate career now as a film star.

LUNDEN: And that's what Peter Hall did - build careers and institutions which long outlast him. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE POSTAL SERVICE SONG, "WE WILL BECOME SILHOUETTES")

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