Sir Peter Hall is one of the most influential directors of contemporary British theatre. He was born in Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk, England and was christened Peter Reginald Frederick Hall. He studied at Cambridge University (where he staged over 20 plays) and began directing professionally in theatres such as the Windsor, the Elizabethan Theatre Company and the West End before becoming artistic director at the Arts theatre in 1955. His fame as a director began to spread in 1955, when he successfully staged the first British production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Shortly afterwards, Hall made his directorial debut at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (later renamed the Royal Shakespeare Company) at Stratford-upon-Avon with a production of Love's Labour's Lost (1956). He continued to gain experience directing contemporary and Shakespearean plays over the next few years and eventually became the Memorial Theatre's leading impresario in 1960. During his time heading the company, Hall was one of a triumvirate of directors including Peter Brook who were attracting much interest and generating new approaches to theatre making. While the work being produced was received with much enthusiasm and Hall's managerial decisions in many ways brought new life to the Company, he resigned in 1968 and accepted work as a freelance director for the next few years. In 1973, he took up another prestigious position as head of the National Theatre (later renamed the Royal National Theatre) and was knighted for his contributions to the arts in 1977. After attracting significant criticism for many of his decisions while at the National Theatre, he eventually resigned in 1987 and formed his commercially successful Peter Hall Company with which he continues to launch new work.
Hall is one of the leading figures to emerge from the mid-1950s, a period often regarded as a renaissance of theatre in England when exciting and experimental work began to flourish and alter existing traditions. His energetic and innovative approaches to theatre making have had a major impact on the development of British theatre, particularly in the two major national companies that he headed. His work has always been tempered with pragmatic, commercial considerations and he has outlined many of his ideas about his life, his work and his influences in a number of autobiographical publications that include Peter Hall Diaries: The Story of a Dramatic Battle (1983), Making An Exhibition of Myself (1993), The Necessary Theatre (1999). He describes himself as a workaholic and his career includes prolific work in theatre as well as opera, film and television.
During his time in Stratford, Hall's socialist beliefs led him to argue that all productions, including classics, should depart from traditional emphases and should offer relevant and contemporary social concerns and views. While some of his artistic views were controversial, he also began to display considerable skill as an administrator and this aptitude enabled him to make a number of significant changes to the theatre. He actively pursued government subsidisation and, after winning a large government subsidy, he gave the theatre a new look by updating the stage with a rake, a thrust and a false proscenium. He also opened a new outlet for the staging of contemporary plays in London called the Aldwych Theatre and in 1961 he gave the theatre in Stratford the new name of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). Instead of offering seasonal contracts to big name stars, as was the norm when he took over, he introduced a more democratic approach to theatre making and offered both stars and newcomers three-year contracts. Hall's new system encouraged established British actors like Peggy Ashcroft to work alongside the emerging talents of actors like Glenda Jackson and this arrangement provided opportunities for collaboration and the cross-fertilisation of their ideas and skills. The Company's actors could also be cast in the new work produced in London as well as the classical productions in Stratford and this arrangement exposed cast members to developing artistic and social views.
While Hall is a director who likes his actors to experiment and take risks with a play, he sees the text as the ultimate authority of a production. Unlike other innovative directors of the twentieth century like Artaud, Grotowski, Barba and even his old colleague Peter Brook, Hall has increasingly come to believe that theatre's principal element is the “word.” Although his earlier work often involved extensive revisions of texts, the detailed work he has done with classical texts like Shakespeare's and contemporary texts like those of the modern playwright Harold Pinter has led him to examine and appreciate strict formal patterns that convey meaning in language. Perhaps as a result of this work, he has come to believe that productions should remain faithful to a playwright's text and that directorial ideas should not detract or distort the rhythms characterising a text. Although Hall continues to attract both praise and criticism, his work is often dynamic and commercially successful.