Tom Sutcliffe considers remembrance


The theatre director Peter Hall’s memorial, exactly one year after he died, occupied first Westminster Abbey and then the Olivier Theatre on the South Bank (with a bit over half the capacity of the abbey) for those who wanted a more wholeheartedly thespian treatment and recollection of Peter’s vast achievement. Dean John Hall’s service put together by the family was beautiful and deeply moving—with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski (about to take over as music director of the Bavarian State Opera from Kirill Petrenko, who is succeeding Simon Rattle at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic, Munich, being probably at this point the most all-round artistically distinguished opera company in the world).

The acoustic was not perhaps ideal for Tippett’s Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli, but the first stage of Mozart’s Requiem with Lucy Crowe and the abbey choir was fabulous; the choir also sang Vaughan Williams’s Cloud-capp’d Towers (which I had never heard before—wonderful). Tom Allen sang the serenade from Don Giovanni. John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi choir sang Es ist nun aus mit meinem Leben by Johann Christoph Bach, which I also did not know and which was both apt and marvellous. Peter’s six children by four wives did the intercessions. Ian Holm, a great actor now largely forgotten, said Puck’s farewell to the audience, and Vanessa Redgrave read 1 Corinthians 13 with the fire, balance and passion for which she is known. I valued tributes by David Hare and Trevor Nunn far less. Simon Callow as MC at the Olivier, along with Maggie Smith and Ian McKellen, made more convincing sense in exactly what they contributed.

But, actually and sadly, the truth is that everything Hall believed in has been destroyed utterly by a widespread political antipathy to subsidy of the live performing arts that has continued to squeeze the UK’s support of spoken theatre, which can only exist commercially as downmarket fodder for London tourists, and also of opera, ballet and classical music. Theatre and opera companies based on permanent ensembles of performers no longer exist anywhere in the UK, and they were fundamental to the kind of theatre and opera in which Hall believed. It is probably also true that Hall’s creation of the Royal Shakespeare Company and the widely supported political decision to launch a National Theatre have between them undermined the whole theatrical ecology of the country which, in days of yore, gave us the actors and actresses of genius we had from the 1930s to the 1980s (Gielgud, Olivier, Richardson, Michael Redgrave, Alec Guinness, Edith Evans, Sybil Thorndike, Flora Robson, Peggy Ashcroft, Vivien Leigh). The reps and touring companies where the whole corpus of the acting and singing professions gained their skills and sustained their lives—as they no longer can, except for a very small number—have vanished. Few people now understand that acting live is the genuine thing, involving the performer in a sustained process controlled by themselves which is the core of their art, whereas film acting is not sustained but haphazard and instead depends on choices made by the cameraman, director and editor, about which the poor actor has no say.

The Welsh National Opera has launched its autumn season with a new production of Prokofiev’s War and Peace, a massive undertaking with memorable music which David Pountney has chosen to stage with far fewer performers than it really requires, and a much simpler all-purpose set. It is aided by cinematic patches from Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1966 film of Tolstoy’s epic novel and also some additional illustrative film entries in the ball scene. I found the approach muddling and insufficiently focussed compared with other performances of this extraordinary opera that I have seen. Don’t expect too much if you catch it in Oxford, Birmingham, Southampton or Llandudno. It is, though, worth experiencing Prokofiev’s wonderfully extended and expressive melodic invention which, like Berlioz’s operas and songs, finds its own complicated way to meaningfulness. I did like Jonathan McGovern’s Andrei and Lauren Michelle’s Natasha. The Welsh chorus is, as always, strong and hugely impactful, but Field Marshal Kutuzov’s second half does not build as it can and should. Pountney is too concerned to show how this epic is an oft-repeated story in Russian history. Yes indeed, but the opera is prompted by but not about the Second World War.