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CORRECT Sir Peter Hall’s eightieth birthday production of Twelfth Night is both scrupulously faithful to Shakespearian metre and determinedly at odds with today’s theatrical rhythms

hile preparing my questions for a recent radio interview to mark Sir Peter Hall’s eightieth birthday, I was struck, as never before with such force, by the remarkable scale of his achievements in British theatre: to have cre- ated the Royal Shakespeare Company would alone have justified his many honours but he also founded the National Theatre as we now know it on London’s South Bank and, with the British premiere of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in 1955, encouraged the modernisation of the repertoire.

W So it is entirely right that the celebrations

of Hall’s eight decades should have included an invitation from Sir Nicholas Hytner for his predecessor to direct a production of his choice at the National. But, for all Sir Peter’s huge significance to the structure of contem- porary theatre, the suspicion has always hung over him that he is a greater producer than director. He crucially helped to realise verbally and visually the pioneering theatrical language of Harold Pinter and brought an operatic swagger to Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, but it is tougher to think of a single solo production of a classic to match landmark stagings by Peter Brook, Trevor Nunn, Richard Eyre and, among the younger generation, Hytner and Michael Grandage. This verdict is confirmed by the anniversary

Twelfth Night. With an impresario’s chutzpah, Hall has secured the National Theatre debut of his movie-star (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Town) daughter, Rebecca Hall, which has caused such a rush for tickets from punters and also touts that the NT is limiting buyers to one pair each. The resulting production, though, might lead to any spivs who have got hold of black- market tickets to sell on at a profit suffering subsequent confrontations with theatre-goers who have paid the inflated fees. In recent years, Hall has become a doctrin - aire theorist of Shakespearean speech, insisting that the verse must be delivered with absolute fidelity to the iambic rhythm and,

in particular, the final beat of each line. So there is no overlapping of words, biting on the end words of the previous speaker, as has become standard in contemporary dramas and has been spread to classical plays by direc- tors such as Grandage and Hytner. Hall also prefers to work, in a challenge to the backs and bladders of his audience, from the com- plete extant text of each play. The consequence of these rules is that this

Twelfth Night runs at almost 20 minutes longer than Grandage’s current Donmar stag- ing of King Lear, a much longer play. And, although the verse is spoken with great clarity, this might as well be radio Shakespeare for all the attention that the direction pays to design (an almost bare stage) and physical action. Whole long scenes are played with the actors standing rigid in a semi-circle, as if around an invisible BBC Bakelite microphone,

The tone is generally low-key, and even the most reliably comic scenes, involving Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Sir Toby Belch, fail to ignite

and Rebecca Hall, for example, almost never raises her arms from her sides throughout the three hours, perhaps because she is sur- reptitiously keeping the iambic beat with her fingers.

Another peculiarity is that Hall insists in

a programme note that the key to this play is “compassion”, although personally I am always struck, on reading or seeing it, by the fact that almost every scene involves a con trick of some kind: most notably, the cruelty of the game in which Malvolio is tricked into think- ing that he has a secret admirer, but also the frequent scenarios in which Viola is disguising her gender or intention. In this version, apart from one genuinely dark episode when

Sir Peter Hall’s Twelfth Night: ‘absolute fidelity to iambic rhythm’

Malvolio is imprisoned, the tone is generally low-key, with even the most reliably comic scenes, involving Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Sir Toby Belch, failing to ignite in the way they did in the Grandage-Jacobi collaboration for the Donmar two Christmases back. Around the restrictions of Hall’s rigid scheme, there’s largely impressive work from a cast that includes two actors who have worked with the director through much of his career: David Ryall who, unusually, plays Feste as a Beckettian melancholic clown, and Simon Callow, Hall’s first Mozart in Amadeus, who brings typical booming exuberance to his Sir Toby. Perhaps revealingly, though, Callow, who has advanced performing instincts, is constantly on the move during his scenes, also encouraging Charles Edwards’ splendidly class-conscious Aguecheek to get up and go as well. My suspicion was that these actors understood how static the rest of the production was. Veterans in any profession – sport, politics,

art – have to accept that the standards and values of the discipline are likely to be reshaped by a new generation by the time they reach the later stages of their career. Grandage, Hytner, Marianne Elliott and others have shown a new way of doing Shakespeare – swift, trimmed, demotic – which acknow - ledges that there is more to these plays than poetically correct delivery. For this reason, and while Sir Peter Hall still stands as one of British theatre’s great figures, his birthday return to the National is less happy than it could have been.

29 January 2011 | THE TABLET | 23

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