Interview with Edward Hall

Last Update: 07 July 2002

Source: The Sunday Times

June 09, 2002

Don't mention his father's Wars of the Roses: Edward Hall has his own, bloodier artistic vision, says Aleks Sierz

The scene is medieval England, and civil war is raging. A nobleman makes a bid for power, fails and is hauled off to the block. As the executioner raises the axe, on the other side of the stage, a red cabbage is pummelled to pieces, with bits of crimson showering the audience. Welcome to the abattoir, the director Edward Hall's version of Shakespeare's three Henry VI plays.

Set in a slaughterhouse, this is a blood-and-thunder bard. Guts are spilt, livers and lights chopped up - and there is a butchers' chorus. Yes, it's gruesome: politics in the Middle Ages were nasty, brutish and short.

But it is not only offal that gets the chop: Shakespeare's text has also been filleted. Like two medieval chroniclers, Hall and his henchman, Roger Warren, have reduced the bard's trilogy to a couple of two-hour plays. Parts I and II have been hacked to make the first play, while a more or less complete Part III is the second. The main casualties are the French scenes - hence no Joan of Arc. Renamed Rose Rage, the plays gallop through the Wars of the Roses, starting with the death of Henry V and ending with the rise of Richard III.

When I meet Hall, he waves a leaflet, cheerfully pointing out that the show is being sold as "Shakespeare's Rose Rage". "They told me that if we don't have Shakespeare's name on the publicity, people won't come," he says. When his father, Sir Peter Hall, directed the bard's history plays for the RSC in 1963, the season also had a memorable moniker "The Wars of the Roses". But Hall shrugs off any idea that he is dumbing down. "We have cut the text, but what remains are Shakespeare's words," he maintains. The only addition is Henry V's funeral speech, which comes from Shakespeare's own source for the Henry VI plays, the 16th-century chronicler whose name was also Edward Hall.

Spooky coincidence? The 36-year-old Hall smiles and nods: he has heard all this before. But ask him about theatre, and his immense enthusiasm bubbles up. "I hate getting bored," he says, with a boyish grin.

"People come to the theatre to be excited and uplifted - I want to inspire my audience." But why stage the Henry VI plays, which are crude early works in which Shakespeare is still learning his craft? "We felt that although they were patchy, there was a tremendous political energy in them." He finds the fact that the civil war begins with an argument in a rose garden a powerful metaphor for how bloody conflicts start. Hall is fascinated by the way that domestic relationships influence public events: "Shakespeare reveals human nature brilliantly: he shines a light on our instinctive desire to dominate each other."

He believes the playwright was no liberal and shows how power changes people for the worse. Rose Rage powers through the butchery of civil war. "We show violence by chopping up real bits of meat - heart, spine, lung - to show the blows people are giving each other." The intention is that this symbolic approach paradoxically makes it all seem stronger than if the staging had pretended it was real. Inspired by the balletic mugging scenes in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, Hall "wanted to make the violence beautiful in order to heighten our revulsion". This is an approach based on the belief that theatre happens in the minds of the audience. Imagination supplies the horror. Hall's all-male Propeller theatre company makes the plays, with their numerous allusions to butchery, into feasts of testosterone. But what about Queen Margaret, the she-wolf of France? "Normally, an actress has to work to bring out her male side," he says. "In our case, the dynamic is reversed. The actor playing her modelled himself on Sharon Stone." Here, violence is a basic instinct. An energetic director, Hall combines a lust for pace - his RSC Julius Caesar roared through the play without an interval - with an eye for visual impact. "I dislike highly technical productions," he says, preferring simple props and live music performed by his actors. He can mix rowdy football songs with delicate madrigals. Most of all, what fascinates him is paradox and ambiguity. "While trying to protect the republic, the conspirators in Julius Caesar enable Mark Antony to triumph. In Rose Rage, the more Henry VI tries to fix things, the more they go wrong."

Hall's career has itself been paradoxical. The son of Peter Hall and his second wife, Jacky Taylor, Edward never saw his oft-married father as a role model. "Look, my father left home when I was 13. He was brilliant when he was there, but for a lot of my childhood he was away working."

Edward grew up sporty, taking 50 runs off Nasser Hussain as a teenager, and he still rides a motorbike. He caught the acting bug at Bedales, but decided to study the philosophy of science at Leeds. Leaving university after a year, he went to Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts. "I was a terrible actor," he says. "The analytical part of my mind never quite let go." So he became a director. When I suggest that he is treading in his father's footsteps, a chill falls on the empty rehearsal room. I am not the first person to say this, but he is still visibly put out. You get a sense that his defence is well used.

"Liza Minnelli calls it the ˜of course" syndrome. If you do something good, everyone says, "Of course she's a success, she's Judy Garland's daughter." If you fail, they say, "Of course, she's not as talented as her mother." I mention that he worked with his father on Tantalus, the 12-hour uber-epic about the Trojan wars that toured the world in 2001. "We had a shorthand, so if something wasn't working, I'd say to him, "Peter, this doesn't work." He'd say, "Why?" and I'd tell him. And the same the other way around. It was a very good, fast, hard, professional relationship," he maintains.

But isn't it odd that he is directing the same history plays as his father?

"My father has done so much, it would be difficult to find anything in the classical repertoire that he hasn't done." But does he hope to follow his father in becoming artistic director of the RSC? "Oh, come off it, I've only directed three plays for the RSC."

With typical passion, he attacks Adrian Noble's reign at the company. "Theatre is about people, not buildings," he says. "Incalculable damage has been done to the expert talent a company needs - from wardrobe to lighting technicians." Asked about the incident in March when he walked out of an RSC production of Edward III just 48 hours before rehearsals, his visor comes down hard: "No comment."

Still, although he has been busy touring Rose Rage, bringing it into the West End this week, his mind is not just on theatre. His wife, Issy van Randwyck (a sparky Dutch baroness who acted in the Fascinating Aida cabaret trio), has just had a baby girl, and Hall is high on the adrenaline rush of fatherhood. "It's amazing," he says. "I can't believe how brilliant the whole thing is - Georgia is just wonderful."

He is also hungry to direct contemporary works: "I'd love to do some new plays."

But his immediate plan is to stage Macbeth with Sean Bean this autumn, so 2002 will go down as the year of his first West End hat trick - his version of Somerset Maugham's The Constant Wife is still at the Apollo. Hall cannot help who his father is and, aided by boundless enthusiasm, he is making his own bid for a place as a Hall of fame. Rose Rage opens at the Haymarket Theatre Royal, SW1, on Wednesday .


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