20 Questions With Edward Hall

Last Update: 07 July 2002

Source: What's On Stage

17th June 2002
20 Questions with Edward Hall

Director Edward Hall - whose Propeller Theatre two-part adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy, Rose Rage, has just opened at the Haymarket - talks about illuminating the Bard & the best advice he got from his father, Sir Peter.

The son of Sir Peter Hall, Edward Hall has become a major theatrical force in his own right, following in his father's footsteps as a director but very much forging his own route at the same time.

Since launching his career under Philip Hedley's tutelage at Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1989, Hall has worked steadily at the Hampstead, Royal Court, Chichester Festival and other theatres with productions including Sacred Heart, Chambers of Glass, Decadence, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Arsenic and Old Lace, She Stoops to Conquer and Somerset Maugham's The Constant Wife, which has just completed its West End run at the Apollo Theatre.

Working with his father in 2000/2001, Hall famously directed John Barton's nine-hour Tantalus, an epic ancient Greek-style tragedy retelling the horrors of the Trojan War, which premiered in Denver before embarking on a UK tour.

In addition to Tantalus, Hall has to date become best known for his many critically acclaimed Shakespeare productions. Those have included, for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Julius Caesar, Henry V and The Two Gentleman of Verona. Other RSC productions, including this year's Edward III and Eastward Ho!, were due to follow until Hall made headlines this spring when he walked out of the former because of "artistic differences" and a lack of adequate rehearsal time.

It's been with his own company, the all-male Propeller troupe, that Hall has found its most consistent artistic outlet. Following their premieres at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury, Propeller's acclaimed Shakespeare productions - Henry V, Twelfth Night (which earned Hall 1999 Barclays/TMA Award for Best Director) and Rose Rage, a two-part version of Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy (adapted by Hall and Roger Warren) - have toured nationally and internationally.

Now, Hall and Propeller bring Rose Rage to the West End for a limited season at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Later this year, Hall will return for a third West End foray with the much-anticipated production of Macbeth, starring screen heartthrob Sean Bean, while his next Propeller production, A Midsummer Night's Dream, will open in the new year.

Date & place of birth
Born 27 November 1966 in Hammersmith, West London.
Lives now in Streatham, South London

Trained at
Leeds University and Mountview Theatre School

First big break
Philip Hedley giving me a job assisting on everything at the Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1989.

Career highlights to date
This company is the highlight. After four years, it still means more to me than anything. Together we've discovered a common love of Shakespeare and of challenging more conventional ways of putting his work on stage. It's really hard to think of other highlights. There have been lots of shows I've enjoyed working on and people I've enjoyed working with, but in terms of developing as an artist, that's what I've been doing with Propeller.

Favourite actors
he ones I'm rehearsing at the moment are always my favourites. I love actors; I love what they do. I have enormous respect for their craft and their nerve.

Favourite playwrights
I have very eclectic tastes. From Shakespeare to Cyril Tourneur, Mark Ravenhill, Patrick Marber, Roy Williams and Gitna Soweby. Theatre is a place for debate and all these writers debate real issues that affect people outside of the theatre world. They do that through character. It's very important that you don't hear the writer's voice but that you find it nonetheless.

Favourite directors
Annie Castledine, Peter Brook, Peter Wood, Katie Mitchell and Nicholas Hytner, to name but a few. All of them have consummate skill at releasing a play. A good director senses what the writer is trying to say - that's where you must start and finish.

What were the most valuable lessons your father taught you about theatre directing?
"Never say die." He taught me that a good director really proves himself in the last week of previews. You've just got to keep in there; it's a work ethic. My own personal motto is "He who loses his nerve last, wins". You can always turn it around, even at the last minute. He also taught me that you must trust your actors. That's something I really believe; you need to listen to them.

What attracts you largely to classical versus contemporary work?
It's not fair to say that I only do classical work. After all, Tantalus was nine new plays, and that was a year of my life spent doing that. I've actually done a lot of new work, at the Royal Court and Hampstead and other theatres, I've done a documentary on television, worked on radio programmes and even directed a computer game. Yes, I've done a lot of Shakespeare because he was a genius and I love doing his plays, but I didn't set out to do just that. I don't like to put labels on people and I don't like labels being put on me.

What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Start funding people and companies instead of buildings. In this country, we have an over-complicated administrative bureaucracy for the arts, which soaks up so much money. Most arts administrators earn far more money than the artists they're funding. It's appalling, not a happy equation at all. We've got to stop trying to make artists fit into schemes that the government cook up. We've got all these Lottery-funded theatres and no one to work in them. In our tour of the country with Rose Rage, we've been to some beautiful theatres that are dead. Why is that? It takes so much time and money to even put in the applications for subsidy. As a company, we have to employ people to apply for subsidy on our behalf and then the schemes change two months later. It makes me boil. These people don't know our business - we know it. It's our vocation, our lifeblood. It's time for them to listen to us.

If you hadn't become involved in theatre, what would you have done professionally?
I might have been a cricketer. I used to play in the under-19's for Hampshire and Surrey.

What's the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
Peter Gill's The York Realist. I was absolutely knocked out by it. It's just an exquisite play - beautifully written, beautifully directed and beautifully acted. Also, Michael Grandage's revival of Peter Nichols' Privates on Parade at the Donmar.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?
Brian May playing the national anthem on an electric guitar while standing on top of Buckingham Palace during the Queen's Golden Jubilee celebrations. Just for that moment.

Favourite books
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M Pirsig and Richard Goodwin's Remembering America. Goodwin was a speechwriter for John F Kennedy - he was sitting next to JFK when Marilyn Monroe sang "Happy Birthday" - and he wrote the book that the film Quiz Show was based on. He's fascinating.

Favourite holiday destinations
The Maldives

How did Propeller Theatre Company come about?
We did a production of Henry V at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury five years ago. It was wacky and we all enjoyed it so much, we decided to do it again and then again and again. We became a cooperative. One of our company, Jonathan McGuinness, came up with the name Propeller. It suggests movement and we liked that.

Why is Propeller all-male?
Because that's how Shakespeare's plays were written. Our productions are a fusion between traditional and contemporary aesthetics. We perform the plays in the way that Shakespeare would have, with populist appeal and using cultural references that we understand today.

What is so special about the Watermill Theatre in Newbury?
Jill Fraser at the Watermill is single-handedly responsible for me doing Shakespeare. Period. She's the first person who let me, with a production of Othello eight years ago. Jill creates an environment where people can go and develop their craft. She's absolutely brilliant at helping people find their own voices; she's certainly helped me find mine. One day, people will stop saying (about the Watermill) 'that sweet little theatre in Newbury' and start saying 'that powerhouse, that breeding ground for new talent'.

How, if at all, does your approach to Shakespeare differ with Propeller versus your productions for the RSC or elsewhere?
With Propeller, all our music and sound effects are performed by the actors; they have become very skilful at it. We create in as live an environment as possible and we're very good at adapting our productions for different spaces. Also, the mere fact that we've been together for so long means that we're very much an ensemble.

In general, how do make Shakespeare accessible to new/younger audiences?
You don't need to make Shakespeare more accessible. If you worry too much about making the plays 'accessible', you may turn them into something they're not. It is important to illuminate them, though, and not to fall into the trap of portraying some 16th-century idea of 15th-century England. You just have to listen to them and follow a few basic rules. Remember, Shakespeare was a populist, commercial writer - the Alan Ayckbourn of his day. He was a great craftsman who wrote brilliant stories that appealed to all sorts of audiences. That still holds true. With Propeller, we use our own modern experiences to tell the story without perverting the original source.

What were the main challenges in condensing Henry VI into two parts?
Shakespeare is all about metaphor - in fact, all good theatre is about metaphor. You have to create a world that is a metaphoric one. Something poetic that suggests cohesion and unity but which has resonances you can recognise today. When considering any Shakespeare production, you have to be very careful. It requires an awful lot of examination and thought. For every idea that works, you have a dozen that don't. With Rose Rage, we didn't particularly want to condense a nine-hour trilogy into two plays of two hours each, but we wanted to do the plays and we knew there was no way we could do nine hours in a regional theatre. So we set ourselves a task. The result is not about what was cut out but what was kept in.

What do you think Shakespeare would have thought of Rose Rage?
As any good writer would, I think he'd ask 'why won't someone pay them to do the whole thing?' and then have a good go at the funding process. After that, I'd like to think he'd have really enjoyed it.

What's your favourite line from Rose Rage?
My favourites changes depending on what when we're doing it. At the moment, it's: "Why, courage then: what cannot be avoided 'Twere childish weakness to lament or fear."

I think Tony Blair should put that on his bedhead.

What's the funniest/most notable thing that has happened in rehearsals/the run to date of Rose Rage?
Prior to coming to the Haymarket, we performed Rose Rage in Istanbul where they've got a lot of feral cats. Somehow they got on stage and pulled out all the meat (the plays are set in an abbatoir). We came back to find blood and offal all over the set and a chorus of cats.

What are your plans for the future?
After the West End, we're taking Rose Rage to Oxford and then Gdansk in Poland. Our next Propeller production is A Midsummer Night's Dream, which opens at the Watermill on 5 February 2003. Otherwise, I'm directing Sean Bean in Macbeth this autumn and next year I'm doing a new play by Richard Goodwin (the Remembering America author). The working title is The Hinge of the World and it's a fantastically involving philosophical debate between Galileo and Pope Urban VIII about faith and science. It opens next spring at the Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford.

- Edward Hall was speaking to Terri Paddock

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