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The great adventure of the Royal Shakespeare Company


'You're absolutely mad, but I'll back you'
Peter Hall Theatre director
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It was then that I thought, you know, the… the only way this can be done is by making a company and by making the way you speak and why you speak and the way you produce your voice absolutely the centre of the… of the business. So when I was asked in '58, when I was 27, if I'd take on the Shakespeare Festival, which was a huge offer for them to make and Glen Byam Shaw, then the director, I know, was very largely responsible for… for engineering that. I said, you know, with the arrogance of a 27-year-old: ‘I don't want to run a Shakespeare Festival at Stratford. I only want to do it if I can change the name of the company because Shakespeare Memorial Theatre sounds like a graveyard and we can do modern plays because I think unless you're alive to the present, you certainly cannot illuminate the past. You need to do the two things together, so I want a London theatre and I want to do modern plays as well as Shakespeare, and I want actors to be under three-year contracts and directors, designers and writers to be under contract as well, and make an ensemble, a company’. And I… advanced as a reason for doing that, that if Stratford didn't do it, they would wake up in a very few years’ time and find that there was a national theatre in London doing it for them. So that was… because Olivier was already planning the National Theatre which finally opened in '63. Anyway, the board of Stratford looked at me in horror, particularly when I said: ‘You've got £170,000 savings, give it to me and let me spend it in London and… and I'll see if we can attract a subsidy from the Arts Council because of the quality of work that we do’. So they all said: ‘Absolutely not, so sorry, no, no’. And Fordham Flower, who was the chairman – a wonderful maverick member of the Flower family who'd built the original theatre in 1876 – he said: ‘I rather like this, I think we should think about this carefully’. So there was a… a kind of interregnum, pause when nothing much seemed to be happening and during that time we went to Russia with some productions: Michael Redgrave playing Hamlet, the Twelfth Night I did with Dorothy Tutin and Geraldine McEwan. And when we were in Leningrad, as it still was then, I started talking to Fordie about this scheme and we sat up all night talking about it and at the end of it, he shook me by the hand and said, ‘You're absolutely mad, but I'll back you – let's do it’, which was extraordinary. He then went back to the Board and said, you know, ‘I'll go if you want me to, but I'd like to do this and I'd like to stay’. So, they all looked very nervous and said okay, and we were… we were off. But, you know, without Fordie, that would not have happened, and also, I mean, subsequently when we had difficulty with the censor over plays like US, I wouldn't have survived without Fordie.

[Q] He was a wonderful man.

Wonderful chairman. Wonderful.

British-born theatre director, Sir Peter Hall (1930-2017), ran the Arts Theatre where, in 1955, he directed the English-language premiere of 'Waiting for Godot' by Samuel Beckett. He also founded the Royal Shakespeare Company when he was only 29, and directed the National Theatre from 1973 to 1988. He was at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon for two season from 1957-1959. He also directed 'Akenfield' for London Weekend Television and ran the Peter Hall Company, which has 40 productions worldwide to its name. In 1963, he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) 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: 1958, Shakespeare Festival, Stratford-upon-Avon, The National Theatre, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Leningrad, Glen Byam Shaw, Laurence Olivier, Fordham Flower, Michael Redgrave, Dorothy Tutin, Geraldine McEwan

Duration: 3 minutes, 46 seconds

Date story recorded: February 2006

Date story went live: 24 January 2008