Peter Hall with Judi Dench in 2011. Photo: Getty
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How Peter Hall took on Thatcher – and secured public subsidy for the arts

The founder of the RSC, who has died aged 86, leaves a complicated legacy. But we should thank him for making theatre more inclusive. 

In May of 2001, I spent twelve continuous hours in the company of Agamemnon. There were, records suggest, another 1,150 people packed in with me at the Barbican Theatre in London, but I remember only the intimacy of storytelling unfurling for me alone. For the first time, I understood how Greek masks worked – how static expressions could nonetheless seem to change their shape with the deft movement of an actor beneath them. I learned too that great directors build up new conventions only to break them. Towards the end of that day, Agamemnon and his captive Clytemnestra, finally seeing each other as human beings, removed their masks and stared each other, blinking, in the face.

This was Tantalus, a day-long retelling of the ‘lost’ bits of the Trojan war cycle and the brain child of academic John Barton and theatre director Sir Peter Hall, who died yesterday at the age of 86. Everyone in British theatre has a story about the day Peter Hall changed their life. For me it was Tantalus. Three years later, I was reading classics at university; sixteen years later I am writing about theatre for a living.

Today’s obituaries have already trumpeted far and wide the obvious achievements of Peter Hall. He shaped British theatre’s greatest institutions: the founding director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the first director of the National Theatre to preside over the National’s building in the Southbank. But the contradictions of his legacy are perhaps best expressed by two less well-publicised achievements.

As theatre’s greatest champion of the traditional canon, he almost single handled re-established Greek tragedy at the centre of British theatre practice. (By mid-century, the "classics" had ceased to be classic.) Yet he was also a bête noir to conservatives and a thorn in the side of Margaret Thatcher. Throughout his career, and particularly at the National Theatre during Thatcher's premiership, Hall led the campaign to establish government subsidy of the arts as bedrock of British cultural policy. Even in his final interview before he announced his retirement in 2011, he was railing against the Coalition government’s mooted cuts on theatre funding – although he saved some breath to complain about slipping standards of Received Pronunciation. (“There are 40, 50 people in this country who speak Shakespeare like kings.”)    

Though Hall spent some of his pre-retirement years indulging in commercial West End hits, few of his real contributions to British theatre would have been manageable without state subsidy – the National Theatre and the RSC were major public projects. Critics, including his internal enemy at the National, Jonathan Miller, accused him of using centralised public money for self-aggrandising institutions. “Peter wanted big, with all this rhetoric about ‘centres of excellence’, but it seemed to me this great National Theatre, with all its multiple facilities and lobby events, was like a Brent Cross Shopping Centre for the arts,” Miller later complained. Miller would argue that funding and National Theatre commissioning should be decentralised: “’The National Theatre’ is the name that should be given to twenty or thirty theatres around the country.” That competition for funding between big name organisations and local organic companies remains the defining tension in the British arts world to this day.

Yet if Hall was the establishment, he used his position to fight for the rest of the arts world tooth and claw. One legend states that he leapt on a coffee table to personally harangue William Rees-Mogg, chair of the Arts Council. In fact, the truth is better: ever the theatrical, Hall performed this stunt in front of a mass of journalists he’d summoned to the National for a press conference in 1985. Dramatically, he announced that Thatcher’s cuts had forced him to close the studio-style Cottesloe Theatre, cut 100 jobs, and end the National’s regional touring productions. All were visibly Public Goods.

The result was total PR victory. Ken Livingstone’s GLC stepped in with a grant to save the Cottesloe; 47 directors of subsidised theatres arrived for a meeting in support of Hall and a vote of no confidence in the Arts Council. In earlier years, Hall had made the case for an RSC grant and a National Theatre endowment – now, he was the leader of campaign for subsidy across the sector.

In many ways, Hall should have been a Thatcherite hero. He came from a working-class family, the son of a station master, and propelled himself into the Establishment, through educational scholarships to private schools and Cambridge. (During his high-profile feud with Miller, friends of Hall pointed this out, disparaging Miller as ‘Bloomsbury aristocracy’.) In a tribute today, his NT successor Richard Eyre said: “Peter created the template of the modern director - part-magus, part-impresario, part-politician, part celebrity.” For many artists, Eyre’s words inadvertently express everything wrong with an anti-collaborative model.

He was also criticised frequently for nepotism. Rebecca Hall, his daughter, started her stage career by starring, straight out of Cambridge, in his productions of Mrs Warren’s Profession, As You Like It, and The Fight For Barbara. His son, Edward, co-directed Tantalus; his then-wife, the soprano Maria Ewing, starred in Salomé, ending her notorious Dance Of The Seven Veils by throwing herself, fully nude, at the feet of the singer playing Herod. Hall left four wives. He fell out with with colleagues. As well as Miller, he feuded with Kenneth Tynan at the National (who called him ‘that dried-up conservative’ at the age of 42, and delighted in leaking NT scandals to newspapers), Pinter (on-and-off) and even with his forty-year collaborator, John Barton.

Yet scratch this easy trope of the egotistic, individualist entrepreneur, and you find someone committed in his own way to inclusivity. The RSC and National were landmarks in mass-audience theatre; even Glyndebourne, under his tenure, expanded its access schemes and began building a large auditorium with cheaper tickets. His former assistants speak of his mentorship with adoration and gratitude.

Perhaps most importantly, Hall pioneered the screening of theatre on TV. If you remember his four and a half hour The Oresteia, another long-form classical extravaganza, it’s more likely that you saw it on year-old Channel 4 in 1983, for whom Hall made an explanatory documentary, than in the National Theatre two years earlier. Like all Hall’s works with the classics, it was an labour of inclusivity rather than exclusivity. For that visionary fore-runner to the now popular NT Live Screenings, as for his defence of arts funding, the British owe him a public debt.

Photo: LYNSEY ADDARIO
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What Happened reveals Hillary Clinton as a smart thinker – unlike the man who beat her

Those asking why she blames everyone but herself for Donald Trump clearly haven't read the book.

Hillary Clinton is smug, entitled, dislikeable, hawkish, boring. She was unable to beat a terrible Republican presidential candidate. Why doesn’t she just shut up and sod off? Bernie would have won, you know. Sexism? There’s no sexism in opposing someone who left Libya a mess and voted for the Iraq War. Also, she had slaves.

This is a small sample of the reactions I’ve had since tweeting that I was reading Clinton’s memoir of the 2016 campaign. This is one of those books that comes enveloped in a raincloud of received opinion. We knew the right hated Clinton – they’ve spent three decades furious that she wanted to keep her maiden name and trying to implicate her in a murder, without ever quite deciding which of those two crimes was worse. But the populist candidacy of Bernie Sanders provoked a wave of backlash from the left, too. You now find people who would happily go to sleep in a nest made out of copies of Manufacturing Consent mouthing hoary Fox News talking points against her.

One of the recurrent strains of left-wing criticism is that Clinton should apologise for losing to Trump – or perhaps even for thinking that she could beat him in the first place. Why does she blame everyone but herself?

Perhaps these people haven’t read the book, because it’s full of admissions of error. Using a private email server was a “boneheaded mistake”; there was a “fundamental mismatch” between her managerial approach to politics and the mood of the country; giving speeches to Wall Street is “on me”; millions of people “just didn’t like me… there’s no getting round it”.

Ultimately, though, she argues that it was a “campaign that had both great strengths and real weaknesses – just like every campaign in history”. This appears to be what has infuriated people, and it’s hard not to detect a tinge of sexist ageism (bore off, grandma, your time has passed). Those who demand only grovelling from the book clearly don’t care about finding lessons for future candidates: if the problem was Hillary and Hillary alone, that’s solved. She’s not running in 2020.

Clinton marshals a respectable battalion of defences. Historically, it is very unusual for an American political party to win three elections in a row. The Democrats (like Labour in Britain) have longstanding problems with white working-class voters outside the big cities. Facebook was flooded with fake news, such as the story that the Pope had endorsed Trump. And besides, Clinton did win three million more votes than her Republican rival.

Added to which, it is now hard to deny that Russia interfered heavily in the US election, with Trump’s approval – “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he told a press conference in July 2016 – and perhaps even with the active collusion of his campaign. The next Democratic candidate will have to reckon with all this.

The election outcome would have been different if just 40,000 voters in three key swing states had flipped, so there are dozens of potential culprits for Clinton’s loss. But perhaps one of the reasons that many in the US media have been so hostile to the book is that it paints them as such villains. Even now, it is common to hear that Clinton “didn’t have an economic message”, when a better criticism is that no one got to hear it.

In their mission not to be accused of “elite bias”, the media desperately hunted for bad things to say about Clinton, when none of her offences came close to the gravity of a totally unqualified, unstable man with no government experience going on a year-long bender of saying mad shit and boasting about sexual assault. In both the primary against Sanders and the general election, she was treated as the obvious next president, and held to a different standard. (Incidentally, there is surprisingly little criticism of Sanders in here; she credits him with helping to write her policy platform.)

The book is at its best when it reflects on gender, a subject which has interested Clinton for decades. She calculates that she spent 600 hours during the campaign having her hair and make-up done, as “the few times I’ve gone out in public without make-up, it’s made the news”. She writes about the women she met who were excited to vote for a female president for the first time. She mentions the Facebook group Pantsuit Nation, where 3.8 million people cheered on her candidacy. (Tellingly, the group was invite-only.)

Yet Clinton was never allowed to be a trailblazer in the way that Barack Obama was. That must be attributed to the belief, common on the left and right, that whiteness and wealth cancel out any discrimination that a woman might otherwise suffer: pure sexism doesn’t exist.

The narrative of the US election is that Clinton was deeply unpopular, and while that’s true, so was Trump. But where were the interviews with the 94 per cent of African-American women who voted for her, compared with the tales of white rage in Appalachia? “The press coverage and political analysis since the election has taken as a given that ‘real America’ is full of middle-aged white men who wear hard hats and work on assembly lines – or did until Obama ruined everything,” she writes.

Clinton faces the uncomfortable fact that whites who feel a sense of “loss” are more attracted by Trump’s message than Americans with objectively worse material conditions who feel life might get better. That is an opportunity for the left, and a challenge: many of those Trump voters aren’t opposed to benefits per se, just the idea they might go to the undeserving. Universal healthcare will be a hard sell if it is deemed to be exploited by, say, undocumented immigrants.

Yes, What Happened is occasionally ridiculous. There’s a section on “alternate nostril breathing” as a relaxation technique that a kinder editor would have cut. The frequent references to her Methodism will seem strange to a British audience. The inspirational stories of the people she meets on the campaign trail can feel a little schmaltzy. But it reveals its author as a prodigious reader, a smart thinker and a crafter of entire sentences. Unlike the man who beat her. 

What Happened
Hillary Clinton
Simon & Schuster, 494pp, £20

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left