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.

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist