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. 

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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.