Remembering Sir Peter Hall: 1930-2017

There will be many tributes to the great Sir Peter Hall. As his publisher it is only right that I add my own fond memories.

My association with Peter began in 2000 when his then agent, Mike Shaw of Curtis Brown, invited me to lunch at Bentley’s oyster bar in Piccadilly. The choice of a smart venue already told me that it was to be an important conversation. As Mike focussed his penetrating gaze on my every move, for about an hour the conversation seemed to meander around various topics until I asked “Mike you haven’t brought me here to talk about love, life, art and death. What is it?” ‘Peter Hall’, he said. Mike wanted Oberon to publish The Peter Hall Diaries and Peter’s autobiography Making an Exhibition of Myself. My first question was ‘How much?’, and I played cool when the answer came. But both books had already been published and allowed to go out of print. Not wanting Oberon to become a reprint house, I stuck my neck out and said ‘Would we get the next book?’

The swift answer was ‘That will be another £…..’ ‘Done,’ I replied, still acting cool. We shook hands on the deal and from then on Peter and I developed a warm and exciting working relationship.

Peter Hall Rehearsing The Oresteia, 1981, ©Nobby Clark

It was a turning point in Oberon’s history. We were 15 years old and the list was a lot shorter than it is now. But Mike had persuaded the great man that we were going places. It was arranged that I meet Peter with his publicist Lynne Kirwin at a small seafood restaurant in Chelsea. The meeting went well and the restaurant (Le Suquet, now gone) became the hideaway where Peter and I would meet from time to time and discuss his new ideas for books in privacy.

The overnight turn-around in Oberon’s fortunes was like Manna from Heaven. The great Sir Peter had turned to this small publisher in Holloway, while we were still struggling for credibility and prominence in the theatre industry. The mood changed. ‘If they’re good enough for Peter Hall, then they’re good enough for me.’ So went the buzz round the Business, in particular literary agents who had mainly dealt with the big publishers.

So we surged ahead with the Diaries, the Autobiography and a new book, Exposed by the Mask, Peter’s Trinity Lectures on Beckett, Pinter, Mozart and Shakespeare.

‘The wisest and most stimulating short book about theatre since Peter Brook’s The Empty Space’ Charles Spencer, Sunday Telegraph.

Peter became ever more loyal and ever more meticulous about the preparation of his books. As they say, he liked to get the ink on his fingers. He missed nothing, and he taught me many things about my own job. How does a book on acting become a real and useful teaching tool? It was Peter who shaped the layout and typesetting of Shakespeare’s Advice to the Players making a complex guide look simple. Often criticised for being an ‘Iambic Fundamentalist’ when it comes to Shakespeare, Peter stuck to his guns. He didn’t like actors inserting pauses and line breaks where none were intended. It all had to come ‘trippingly on the tongue’ as Hamlet says to the Players.  I understood what he meant when I once heard an excruciating recitation of a Sonnet by a student actor who inserted pauses you could drive a bus through. It broke the flow, we lost our focus, and it was an emasculated performance.

Peter Hall, Dec 2007 ©Nobby Clark

We launched Shakespeare’s Advice to the Players at the National Theatre. On the way I picked Peter up at a church hall in Clapham where had had been rehearsing all day. Arriving at the National just in time, Peter stepped out of the car, walked straight into the building to the vast stage of the Lyttelton, and delivered a thirty minute talk to a full house without using any notes. Afterwards, he patiently signed books for many fans waiting in a very long line.

Ever in awe of Peter I always topped my emails with his full title ‘Sir Peter Hall, CBE’ before the more familiar ‘Dear Peter’.  I once asked him why he chose Oberon to publish his work. His response was unequivocal. ‘You publish new writers.’ That enthusiasm for new work ran through his career. He must have known that he was giving new writing a massive boost by joining Oberon.

I tried to return his loyalty whenever there was an opportunity. When Peter and his team were in Denver mounting Tantalus, the ten play cycle by John Barton, there was a dispute over cuts. So I rang his secretary at the Denver residence in case any cuts would be made to the text. It soon became clear that happiness among the team was in short supply. So I offered to take everyone to dinner to cheer them up. ‘But you’re in London!’ Well, it’s only a six hour flight and I was in Denver by the next day. For politeness’ sake the booking had been made for the coffee shop in a smart downtown hotel. A coffee shop? This would never do, so I rushed to the other end of the building to the hotel’s grander restaurant. Passing Peter and his secretary in the lobby I heard Peter say ‘He sussed that out in thirty seconds.’ But there was still an obstacle ahead. The Maître D said imperiously that the restaurant was fully booked. I despaired. I had just flown in from London to take eight people to dinner and no table. Only a bold gesture could help me now – the time honoured $100 bill quickly produced out of my back pocket. A table was promptly found.

At the start of dinner I studied the wine list with prices soaring to $4000 plus. Peter leaned over and whispered in my ear. ‘James, a $50 bottle will do.’

I still adore him.

Peter Hall, 2009 ©Nobby Clark

– James Hogan, Publisher, Oberon Books

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Arnold Wesker

There are numerous playwrights whose output includes masterpieces and other plays which are less well regarded. Pinero, Noël Coward, Terence Rattigan, Tennessee Williams included.

Arnold Wesker July 2007 ©NOBBY CLARK

Arnold Wesker by Nobby Clark

From history, Lope de Vega and Shakespeare are also “fine” examples of prolific playwrights, some of whose work attracts less interest today. How could it be otherwise? Lope, for example, wrote some 1500 plays, around 450 remain extant, but only a few remain in the repertory, notably Fuente Ovejuna. Perhaps Lope churned them out for money, recycled a good many too. Yet in death all these great playwrights are respected and revered. Where would theatre be without them today? Arnold Wesker has joined that distinguished company.

How easy it is, and glib, to say he wrote a few good plays and sneer at the rest? My response is ‘you try writing a few good plays!’ Arnold did more than that, he wrote several masterpieces.

Among the many playwrights I have had the privilege of publishing Arnold has a special place in my heart. With his wife Dusty he was a charming host and impossible not to like. The twinkle in his eye, and in his smile, his razor-sharp logic, told me that he knew himself well, and knew rather more about the possibilities of theatre than some of his critics.

Alongside his contemporaries like Osborne and Bond, Arnold was a leader, a political force whose plays transformed modern theatre. At times he was an energetic activist, never afraid to take on the establishment within the theatre – and, believe it, there is such an establishment which confers favour on the faithful and stifles opposition. I remember an actor who some years ago told me that among a cast of sixteen he was the only one who hadn’t been to Oxford. (The director also went to Oxford.) The outsider was cast (tolerated) for his regional accent!

Wesker photo by Leon Kreel

Arnold Wesker by Leon Kreel

Arnold was one of my heroes in the theatre. He was never one to roll over when angered or bullied. Some call it biting the hand that feeds you. Others call it telling the truth.

Sir Arnold Wesker always told the truth. I shall miss him.

James Hogan

The Death of Seamus Heaney

Playwright Daragh Carville pays tribute to the late Seamus Heaney, and shares his memories of an inspirational man.

The words ‘Seamus Heaney’ and ‘Death’ have been linked ever since the very beginning of his career, with the publication of ‘Death of a Naturalist’ in 1966. Death has been a constant presence in his work ever since; from the heartbreaking loss of the little brother in ‘Mid Term Break’ through to the many elegies for friends and fellow artists in the most recent collections. In between, there were the victims of the Troubles commemorated in poems such as ‘Casualty’, the ancient dead of the bog-bodies poems, and the Dante-esque revenants given voice in ‘Station Island’ and elsewhere. Death – and rebirth, of course, and renewal – is everywhere in Heaney. And yet seeing the words ‘Seamus Heaney’s death’ together brings a profound psychic shock. As if there’s been some kind of mix-up. As if those words just don’t belong together at all.

Like many of us, I first encountered Seamus Heaney’s poetry at school. At St Patrick’s College in Armagh, we studied his Selected Poems for O Level, a nineteen-eighties paperback edition with a big black and white photograph of the man on the cover, squinting into the camera, half smiling, wearing an old duffle coat. The first poem was of course ‘Digging’. I loved the rolling music of the words, the precise sense of place and the feeling that the poems were both new and ancient, as if they had somehow tapped into all of the present and all of the past.

Some time in the mid eighties, Heaney came to do a reading in Armagh and we were brought along by our English teacher, Paul McAvinchey. And there he was, the man himself, in living colour. He looked exactly like himself. Actually he looked, as a classroom wag put it, as if he’d arrived on his pushbike: his big bush of hair blown back, his face shining, weather-beaten. You half expected to see a pair of bicycle clips around the cuffs of his trousers. And he was smiling. He was always smiling.

Seamus Heaney (Image courtesy of The Market Place Theatre and Arts Centre, Armagh)

Seamus Heaney (Image courtesy of The Market Place Theatre and Arts Centre, Armagh)

Heaney often spoke of the impact of his first encounter with the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh, the sense that Kavanagh gave him ‘permission’ to write about his own experience, about ‘the nettles behind the henhouse’. My own first encounter with Heaney did something like that for me. We were also studying Shakespeare and Chaucer for O Level and I loved their words too, their worlds. But this man was from just up the road. He was the kind of man you would see in Armagh appraising livestock in the Shambles Market or ordering a drink at the bar in the Charlemont Arms. He was one of us. An ordinary man but one who did extraordinary things. And he gave you permission to try and do something like that yourself. He gave you permission to go for it.

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