Theatre's master showman revives Old Vic glory days

Sir Peter Hall is to challenge the two national companies he once ran - the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company - with a new repertory company based at the Old Vic Theatre, London, a stone's throw away from the National on the South Bank.

The 66-year-old veteran diewctor has lured stars from his former companies to join him. And in a radical change to established practice, he will stage plays seven days a week. Sunday openings have not been managed by any of the national companies, nor by most theatres in the West End of London because of union objections.

Sir Peter will also have a top ticket price of £19, cheaper than the highest prices at the National, RSC and West End theatres.

The Old Vic

Starting in March next year, Sir Peter will present 12 plays in repertory over a 40-week season. Six will be classics and six will be new plays by young playwrights, bringing back the concept of repertory which has largely disappeared from British theatre. This will mean that the entire company will appear in different productions; there will be only an hour needed to change the sets from one production to another and the theatre will never have to go dark for days on end for technical rehearsals as still happens at the big subsidised theatres.

The National and RSC operate repertory-based systems, but do not involve the entire companies in casting across plays.

Among those joining Sir Peter will be Alan Howard, currently starring in the Oedipus plays at the National, Felicity Kendal, Geraldine McEwan and the former RSC leading actors Ben Kingsley and Michael Pennington. Alan Howard will play King Lear for the first time, and it will be the first time Sir Peter has directed it.

The Old Vic, which was home to the National Theatre in the Sixties, has failed to have consistent success in recent years despite lavish refurbishment by its Canadian father-and-son owners, Ed and David Mirvisch. The Mirvisches have told Sir Peter that if he makes a profit he can carry on indefinitely, but if he fails to attract the necessary audiences of 65 per cent of capacity, they will close the venture down. Also backing the project financially is the West End producer Bill Kenwright.

Felicity Kendal said yesterday: "I have decided to come here because a repertory theatre company is a theatre I understand and love most. To work with other actors in two or three plays is exciting and I think audiences find it exciting too."

Sir Peter denied that he was setting up a "mini National Theatre", but he said: "We're all in competition with each other. It's rather wonderful having spent all my life in the RSC and National Theatre to have a chance to do it again on a smaller scale. I want to do new plays, I want to run a theatre which is hyperactive."

Andrew Leigh, general manager of the Old Vic, said he had achieved agreement with the actors' union Equity and the backstage workers' union Bectu for Sunday working. No one would have to work more than six days a week, he said.

Among the classics he is presenting, Sir Peter will direct Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot which he premièred in 1955. It will star Alan Howard and Michael Pennington [sic]*. Felicity Kendal will appear in Chekhov's The Seagull, Harley Granville-Barker's Waste and Sir John Vanburgh's The Provok'd Wife.

* Ben Kingsley

David Lister

The Independent, 29.11.96

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