I was thinking about Sir Peter Hall the other day and did a Google of him – I was sorry to learn he had dementia. I’ve sung a great deal for dementia sufferers over the last few years, and the thought of that brilliant mind adrift caused me some sadness. I worked on the second tour of ‘As You Like It’ in the States, and was fortunate enough to experience playing at BAM in front of the Clintons, Lou Reed, Martin Scorsese and a whole host of other people whose names escapes me. Lucky enough to bask in the reflected glory of others.
About 9 months before meeting him, on a horrendously hilarious tour of ‘Death of a Salesman’ I read his autobiography, ‘Making an exhibition of myself’, so I knew all about his deep love of music and how that influenced his life. When I got the opportunity to audition for him, we spent a half hour just talking music. He then said ‘Well, I suppose we better hear you read’, which I did. Then he asked me to sing, so I sang the Habanera. I finished and he looked at me intently, and said: ‘Take care of that voice’. The next day I had the job.
I remember on the first day of rehearsal, some time in November, how delighted he was when he received his fish and chips and champagne from Judi Dench (apparently it was their ‘thing’). I remember his script on a music stand in the rehearsal room. I remember how he very firmly told me I could not use an Ulster accent for my one line, and how that amused me. Just the absoluteness of his tone that didn’t brook any argument – and why would one argue with Sir Peter? He’d earned his opinions on Shakespeare many times over.
I maybe didn’t get to see the brilliance of the director at that stage of his life, but he was definitely a great impresario. I remember when we got to LA and he stood on the stage and looked around, saying something along the lines of ‘My kinda town!’ Yes, it was cheesy and corny as hell. But it spoke of the irrepressible, daring, Barnumesque-impresario spirit of the man, and one could see the man who was a railway worker’s son who had made it to Cambridge, set up the RSC, taking a chance on bringing Samuel Beckett to London and putting on ‘Waiting for Godot’, and running the National Theatre.
A few years later, the director Michael Blakemore invited me for afternoon tea. It was a wonderful afternoon, and we talked about many things, including how my hero Laurence Olivier had backed Blakemore for the job of running the National, but that Peter had scuppered him for it at seemingly the 11th hour. Though it had clearly stung at the time, he expressed his admiration for Peter’s daring-do, political astuteness and gung-ho attitude.
I remember leaving Blakemore’s flat and wondering at the strangeness of life. These giants of theatre, whom I had read about in books, rendered human. And yet – they were giants. I know. There was an energy, a spirit there that was very special. And, having been lucky enough to encounter this spirit, I wonder will we ever see its like again.
We rarely appreciate events in our life as they happen. It’s one of the great tragedies of life, really. At the time, I totally didn’t appreciate how lucky I was to walk in the shadow of greatness. More often than I’d like to admit, all I saw was the shadow. But, similar to another Peter – Pan – the shadow is as necessary as the light-giver. And now, with the benefit of over a decade and retrospective wisdom, I can see the inspiration of those who have that extra brightness. To quote his beloved Bard:
“Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.”