More than four years after leaving the top post at the Royal National Theater to set up commercial shop on the West End, Sir Peter Hall begins 1993 with one of Shaftesbury Avenue’s few straight-play hits, a busy slate of upcoming directing projects and a new producing partner.
With no fewer than three concurrent productions likely on the West End this spring, Hall continues to be one of the British theater’s most formidable individuals. But the Peter Hall Co. has turned out to be wholly different from the director’s own description of it in the fall of 1988.
At that point Hall, backed by producer Duncan Weldon, planned to take up residency at the Theater Royal, Haymarket, staging two or three plays a year and handing others over to an artistic associate, playwright Alan Ayckbourn. He also figured to move his productions to Broadway with some regularity.
As it turned out, the director recently enlisted his third London impresario, producer Bill Kenwright, and has never had a permanent West End home for his productions.
Ayckbourn dropped out for financial reasons before he’d done a single production. The Broadway connection dried up after mixed reviews and erratic box office for the first production, “Orpheus Descending,” with Vanessa Redgrave, and the better-received Dustin Hoffman “Merchant of Venice,” which followed.
What remains? The resolve of the 62-year-old director himself, whose 10-show lineup for the company to date has ranged from the aesthetically revelatory (“Orpheus,””The Wild Duck”) to the embarrassing (the musical “Born Again” with Mandy Patinkin at Chichester; a dreary “Twelfth Night”).
Commercially, the Peter Hall Co. has had runaway hits–“Merchant,” which got four Tony nominations–and outright flops: Stephen Poliakoff’s “Sienna Red,” which closed on the road last summer losing its entire T215,000 (about $ 325,000 ) capitalization.
This output exists alongside Hall’s freelance jobs, whether as director of Channel 4’s five-part “Camomile Lawn,” or of John Guare’s “Four Baboons Adoring the Sun” last spring at Lincoln Center, for which he received a Tony Award nomination.
Reason to smile
Right now, Hall has reason to smile. His Globe Theater staging of Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” opened Nov. 4 to rave reviews and has been extended at least through April, by which point Kenwright says it will easily have recouped its T250,000 (about $ 400,000) capitalization.
A second Hall production, Peter Shaffer’s “The Gift of the Gorgon” at the Royal Shakespeare Co., is due to transfer to the West End in mid-March, per Kenwright.
“The whole basis of future work is to develop the idea of touring dates,” Hall said in a pre-Christmas interview. “The West End is the most tremendous gamble.”
With theaters to fill in Liverpool and the London commuter town of Leatherhead, Kenwright welcomes the arrangement.
And the cachet that Sir Peter provides doesn’t hurt. “I’ve had a lot of West End successes, but it’s that other touch of class Peter definitely brings. Perhaps I need this man as much as he needs me,” Kenwright said.
Hall and Kenwright, a 46-year-old Liverpudlian, might justifiably seem an odd alliance, since for every “Dancing at Lughnasa” and Glenda Jackson “Mother Courage,” Kenwright’s producing tastes also include the more downmarket “Murder by Misadventure,””Good Rockin’ Tonight” and the long-running musical “Bloodbrothers.”
But along with his theater and opera stagings (“Amadeus” and “The Homecoming” high among them), Hall has never been shy about his commercial aspirations.
Indeed, sharp criticism of his West End and Broadway links immediately preceded his departure from the National.
It’s undoubtedly a sign of Kenwright’s influence that Hall’s upcoming slate includes “She Stoops to Conquer” with rock star David Essex as Tony Lumpkin, and a revival of Pam Gems’ “Piaf,” starring the always-popular Elaine Paige. The trade-off is that Kenwright ends up backing one project that sounds like vintage Hall, a half-masque production of Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” starring Imelda Staunton (“Peter’s Friends”).
What, then, is Hall’s estimation of his company as it celebrates its fourth birthday? “I am still disappointed that we’re not in one theater, and haven’t done more in America after a rather good start.” Ever the realist, he adds, “I’m trying to carry on in a situation where I do the plays I want in the way I want to do them.”