Remembering Sir Peter Hall's master stagework in Chicago

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It is Hall's work on the opera stage that left its greatest mark in Chicago.

Sir Peter Hall, one of the giants of 20th century theater and opera, died Monday, at the age of 86. He is being remembered for a long and illustrious career that included staging the English language premiere of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” (in London, in 1955), the world premieres of Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming” (in 1965), “No Man’s Land” (1975), and “Betrayal” (1978), the premiere of Peter Schaffer’s “Amadeus” (1979), and “The Wars of the Roses,” his 1963 production, adapted with John Barton from Shakespeare’s history plays.

Hall also was a “master builder” of institutions, founding the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (which he oversaw from 1960 to 1968), serving as director of Britain’s National Theatre from 1973 to 1988 (where he directed 33 productions), and as artistic director of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera (1984 – 1990).

It is Hall’s work on the opera stage that left its greatest mark in Chicago. He directed many productions at Lyric Opera, beginning with “The Marriage of Figaro,” which he staged during the 1987-88 season (with four subsequent revivals during the 1990s and 2000s), as well as “Salome” (1988-89), “Cosi fan tutte”  (1997-98), “Otello” (2001-2002, starring Renee Fleming and Ben Heppner); and the Lyric premiere of Michael Tippett’s “The Midsummer Marriage” (2005-2006 season).

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The wedding dance scene in Sir Peter Hall’s production of “The Marriage of Figaro” at Lyric Opera of Chicago during the 2003-2004 season. (Photo: Dan Rest/ Lyric Opera of Chicago.)

And while Hall never directed at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, he was awarded the Spirit of Shakespeare Award by that company in 2011.  (In 2004, Peter Hall’s son, Edward Hall, created “Rose Rage,” a compilation of “Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 and 3” that was remounted in New York at The Duke on 42nd Street.)

“Peter was just an inexorable force of nature,” said Barbara Gaines, founder and artistic director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, who was friends with Hall for many years. “He was a fearless defender of the arts, getting support for them with the power of a Saturn missile. He also was incredibly generous. Early on, when we were still performing at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, I called him to see if he could recommend good directors of Shakespeare, and he opened so many doors for us.”

“I also remember that at his 80th birthday I asked him what he was most proud of,” Gaines said. “And instead of pointing to a particular production he told me: ‘It was being able to leave the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in the hands of Trevor Nunn, and The National Theatre in the hands of Richard Eyre.’ That tells you something about the man.”

One of Hall’s most ambitious projects in the later part of his career  (co-directed with his son, Edward) was the 2001 production of John Barton’s “Tantalus,” an $8 million venture (based on the myths and classic plays of ancient Greece), co-produced by the Denver Center Theatre Company and Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company. The daylong theatrical marathon of nine plays (which this critic was fortunate enough to see) ran about 10-and-one-half hours as it spun the story of the creation of the world, the hubris of man, and the complex punishments doled out to all those caught up in the carnage of the Trojan War.

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Sir Peter Hall, director of the epic production, “Tantalus,” poses with one of the suits of armor used in the 10 1/2-hour play at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. | David Zalubowski/AP

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