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The secret of the Cambridge University drama department is...


Extraordinary times at Cambridge
Peter Hall Theatre director
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What did I do at Cambridge? Well, I did a lot of Shakespeare because I wanted to be a Shakespeare director, rather like Harold Wilson as a boy, standing outside No 10, saying: ‘I want to be Prime Minister’. I'm afraid as a young man, I stood outside the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon, and said to myself: I really would like to run this place. That's my ambition. I'd just been to see Peter Brook's production of Love's Labour's Lost, which he'd done when he was 20, 21, and I remember being so jealous, thinking how on earth did he do that? I was about 15, I think. How on earth did that happen? Anyway, off I went to Cambridge, by which time I'd fallen in love and was engaged and thought maybe all the plan was silly and I'd better be a teacher or at least I'd better do something secure. But I did something, which to this day, I don't quite understand. In my first year, I booked the Amateur Dramatic Club Theatre for the beginning of my third year, to do a production just in case things changed. I had no money. I didn't know how I was going to pay for this said production, so for two years I hung around the dramatic world of Cambridge, rather resentfully, rather sulkily, acting a bit, assistant directing a bit, trying not to have much to do with it. By the end of my second year I'd broken up with the girl. We'd broken off our engagement. It didn't finally work. Sad time, but I had the theatre. There it was, and two wonderful school masters from the Perse School lent me £40 to do my first production, and the Amateur Dramatic Club found to their surprise, that young Hall, who'd had no experience whatsoever of directing, as far as they were concerned, had booked the theatre. And they couldn't unbook it, so I did a production of Jean Anouilh’s play, EurydicePoint of Departure it was called in English. In those days Anouilh was rather the avant-garde and it was all related to one's love of French films apart from one's love of French drama. And I did it with a terribly good cast, many of whom – Tony Church predominantly and Tony White – became professionals. I… I can't… I remember very early on, an afternoon's rehearsal, which wasn't going very well, and I… I remember unknotting a problem with the two actors, so that they began to float and create, and I honestly felt like a duck must feel when it takes to water. I felt, I can do this, and this is… this is what I was meant to do, and from that moment on I was extremely happy. I did five productions in my last year at Cambridge and that was a result of the success of that first… this first play. I returned the money to the school teachers, which was a proud moment, but I did have a wonderful supervisor at the college who called me in to see him shortly after all this and he said, ‘I've just read in the Varsity that you're… you've got five productions including the one you've just done, to do this… this year’. I said, ‘Well, yeah, that's wonderful, you know, it's really happened for me’. And he said, ‘You're going to fail’ and I said, ‘Oh, I don't know’, you know, and he said: ‘But you are’. He said: ‘You couldn't do five productions as a professional in that time, let alone as a student’. So I said, ‘But this is what I want to do, and this is what I need to do’ and he said: ‘Look, I'm not going to waste my time nor yours. I've told you I think you'll fail. You've got a first in your first year, a second in your second year and this year you will fail if you do all this’. But he said: ‘Go ahead, do it. It's your responsibility. Don't tell anybody, but I don't want to see you until after the exam results come out and we'll have a drink together’. Extraordinary. He is no longer with us, alas, but he'd be fired if he did that today, I'm sure. But I was given the keys to the kingdom in some sense, so I did all those plays, and I went and had my drink with him after the results… the exam results came out. He was wrong. I got a 2.2, but only just, and had there been a fourth year, I would certainly have failed. But what was wonderful was that amount of experience. I was able to do Uncle Vanya of Chekhov, Love's Labours Lost of… of Shakespeare, a… a new play that John Barton wrote called Winterlude, John Whiting's play, Saint's Day, which developed a… a friendship with John Whiting which lasted 'til his death and many years later I got him to write The Devils for the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was a very heady time, and in those days London critics used to come and review student productions at Cambridge. So by the time I left Cambridge I had a wodge of… of notices saying I could direct, which was extraordinary.

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: 10 Downing Street, Shakespeare Memorial theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, Love's Labour's Lost, Cambridge University, Cambridge, Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club, Perse School, Eurydice, Point of Departure, Uncle Vanya, Winterlude, Saint's Day, The Devils, Royal Shakespeare Company, William Shakespeare, Harold Wilson, Peter Brook, Jean Anouilh, Tony Church, Tony White, Anton Chekhov, John Barton, John Whiting

Duration: 5 minutes, 55 seconds

Date story recorded: February 2006

Date story went live: 24 January 2008