Even at 78 and from a distance, Sir Peter Hall has the look of an alpha male. There he is about 100 or so feet away, advancing towards me across the polished boards of his rehearsal room; head forward, bear-like, with the lonely charisma of a boxing champ. As he passes, the younger members of the Peter Hall Company fall back smiling, deferring. He’s king here, a Lear (act one). He pauses to pat a gamine young beauty on the arm, stroke his beard, pull his plump lips into a roguish grin — then moves on to the table where his lunch and I are waiting. One small sandwich, one large pile of lettuce. The great director sits, examines first me, then his lunch, then gives both of us a look of terrible, bored disappointment.
Sir Peter Hall is a great connoisseur of life, a sensualist. He loves beautiful women, extravagant cars and fine food. He’s been married four times, first to the French actress Leslie Caron and most recently to Nicola, 30 years his junior. ‘Making love to a woman is the closest most men will get to being an artist,’ he says. He’s owned an E-type Jag, a Rolls-Royce Phantom; he wears cashmere and dines at The Ivy. Sir Peter is not a salad and sarnie man.
Nor, at first, does he seem much like an interview man. I start with his childhood, trying to understand where his unstoppable energy comes from. How did the son of a Suffolk stationmaster end up discovering Waiting for Godot at 24, founding the RSC at 29 and directing the National Theatre at 33? What drives him? ‘Well, I don’t know. I am who I am,’ he says with a shrug. What was your father like? ‘A peaceful, generous man.’ What was your mother like? ‘Ambitious.’ So are you more like her, then? ‘Maybe.’ He smiles, but not with his eyes. When did you first realise you wanted to direct? ‘When I was 12.’
A little later, sandwich scoffed, salad untouched, he apologises for being abrupt: ‘I always slump in the breaks between rehearsal,’ he says. ‘It’s a real problem. When I’m directing I’m completely full of adrenaline, but afterwards I just go, “Ooooooomph”, and switch off. I did it just now when I met you. It wasn’t you. Don’t take it personally.’
The relief! But truth is, it wasn’t just the absence of adrenaline which got us off to a slow start, it was something more admirable. As this interview progresses I realise that, though he’s a great grandee, CBE and knighted, he would genuinely rather talk about his actors than his past triumphs.
‘A good actor? Ah, well, you cannot train or make a good actor,’ Sir Peter’s eyes light up. ‘You can only assist what they already have. It’s that strange thing called watchability — either someone has it or they don’t.’ Who has it, do you think? ‘Oh, Paul Scofield. He could be downstage right, in the dark and all the audience would still be watching him even though he was quite still. It’s an extraordinary magic.’
What about women, can they be magic too? ‘Yes, yes. My two assistant stage managers at the Oxford Playhouse in 1953, for example.’ Eh? ‘One was Eileen Atkins, the other Maggie Smith,’ Hall chortles. ‘They were both deeply resentful at not being on stage.’ And your daughter, Rebecca, I say. She acts the socks off Scarlett Johansson in Woody Allen’s latest flick. Sir Peter beams: ‘Yes, she does!’
Discovering and encouraging actors is what Peter Hall does best. ‘Actors basically come in two kinds,’ he says. ‘Either they make an awful lot of noise, external stuff, at rehearsal and you have to gradually peel the skin off like an onion until you are down to the real bit. Or they start with this tiny thing inside them, an egg that hatches then grows. That’s a simplification obviously — but true! And you’d better get it right as a director.’
So you’ve got to know your onions from your eggs? ‘Yes.’ And cook them all together into an omelette? ‘Hopefully, hopefully. But it’s about their creativity, not mine.’
During a lull in conversation, while I change tapes, Hall murmurs, almost to himself: ‘I’m better. Better with them than I am without them.’ He means actors, I think, and I’m reminded that, for all his energy and joviality, he’s had some dark times: depressions and breakdowns. A play is perhaps just as cathartic for him as for his actors.
‘He’s a very honest director, very true to the work,’ said the late Harold Pinter of his friend. ‘I’ve seen some productions of my work in various places that have really distorted the whole thing. Peter never allows this. He discovers, he doesn’t impose.’
‘I had a very good relationship with Harold whom I miss dreadfully,’ says Sir Peter. ‘He used to come to rehearsal pretty much all the time and our pact together was that he could say anything he wanted to me about what I was doing and I could say anything I wanted to him about the text. Although I think that was a bit nerve wracking for some of the actors!’
And what about new playwrights? Are there any 21st-century Pinters among them? Sir Peter looks a touch sad: ‘There is a lot of talent about but one of the problems of getting old is that the new generation of dramatists have got their own directors, and so they should have, who are probably 40 years younger than me. I still get new plays but I am better off doing classics.’
As our hour ticks to a close, I try to provoke another adrenaline rush by moving on to his pet hate — politicians. Hall’s mistrust of Westminster types began with Thatcher, with whom he had several fierce battles over funding. ‘I was 15 years running the National Theatre and she came once!’ His eyes open wide in outrage. So the Iron Lady’s soul wasn’t much moved by beauty? ‘No, certainly not.’
‘I fear for the future of the arts because we are naturally philistine as a nation and our politicians even more so. The first thing that is always cut is the arts. We think we don’t need them, but the arts are crucial in a democracy.’
But there is an upside to all the current political chicanery, which is that it makes Peter Hall’s selection of Bernard Shaw’s The Apple Cart for his Bath season spookily prescient. ‘It is a play about politics and it could have been written yesterday,’ says Sir Peter. ‘There is even an observation by one of the politicians that the problem with the Cabinet is that there are too many Scotsmen in it. It is about the impossibility of democracy really, about why we have to try even though it won’t work.’ Across the hall, The Apple Cart cast are beginning to drift in again. Sir Peter Hall smiles, pushes his plate away and gets up. Back to the serious business of theatre.
The Peter Hall Company is at the Theatre Royal Bath 25 June to 29 August; box office: 01225 448844