When Peter Hall opens his new production of Harley Granville-Barker's Waste at the Old Vic on Friday, he will be doing more than restoring a neglected masterpiece to the stage. At the age of 66, he is returning to the principles of nearly 40 years ago, when he formed the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, by building a team of actors to work on a range of plays as an ensemble.
Hall's strategy - a strong company on long-term contracts - was hailed as revolutionary by Equity and others. "I began with a company of about 16, with people like Peter O'Toole, Eric Porter, Dorothy Tutin on three-year contracts. It is the only way to do something meaningful in the theatre. That level of commitment gave us the possibility of making a true ensemble where people support each other and do better as a result."
Today, his new company seems equally innovative, because the old provincial reps have been obliterated by vanishing subsidies, and the concept of the ensemble company has been lost. The RSC is almost its last representative, with 140 actors on varying contracts up to 60 weeks in 11 productions covering the Stratford season and residencies in Newcastle and Plymouth.
The National Theatre has also mutated from the company that Laurence Olivier launched in 1963; though it has about 125 actors under contract, these contracts run for only five to six months and few actors appear in more than one of the 18 annual productions. "We try to provide them with continuity, a loose federation," says its director, Richard Eyre.
Hall believes that neither runs a genuine ensemble. "There isn't a Royal Shakespeare Company any more; there's a company each season. You need to keep the same group for six or seven years."
At the Old Vic, Hall claims that he has swept aside the cumbersome constraints that affect the big companies. "I wrote down a list of everything I disliked at the RSC and the National and vowed never to do them again. I got fed up with these vast places which were dead for part of the time - it was crazy."
So his company, of 17 rising to 25, have signed up from January to December, with a break of 10 weeks of Wind in the Willows at Christmas, after which the cycle starts again. They will perform six plays, alternating through the week, while separate casts will perform a further six brand-new plays on Sundays and Mondays, so that the theatre is open seven days a week for 10 performances.
John Gunter has devised a permanent set of a blue box so the minimal scenery for each play can be struck in one hour, enabling different productions to be mounted in the afternoon and evening. "No one will have to play Lear twice a day," promises Hall. King Lear is, in fact, on his schedule for August, with Alan Howard as the King and Victoria Hamilton as Cordelia; Felicity Kendal and Michael Pennington are in both Waste and The Seagull, in a new translation by Tom Stoppard; and Howard and Ben Kingsley appear in Waiting for Godot.
This is dream casting for any theatre. But it also illustrates the virtues of the ensemble company. As Hall points out, "You can cast from strength, with a leading actor one night lending brilliance to a smaller part."
The playwright-manager Alan Ayckbourn is another who
believes in the old rep system, in which the same actors performed a different
play every week. Most importantly, he says, it gave young actors the chance to
learn from their seniors.
"People think you're barmy when you say this, but that sort of really concentrated acting never did anyone any harm. It was terrifically hard work but you learnt so much about style, about delivery, that is missing nowadays."
If such an ensemble company is the Holy Grail, a whole generation of actors have been worshipping at a different altar - television. "The collapse of the provincial repertory system has meant that actors have grown up without any knowledge of its value," says Hall. "There's no way now for young actors to learn about things like verse-speaking. You don't learn to be an actor by doing television; you learn by listening to an audience. It's terribly hard to get them to commit themselves to something longer term."
But his younger colleague, Jude Kelly, director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, perceives a shift back towards collaboration. "I've noticed a sea change over the past seven years. Actors are beginning to realise that they are losing their 'power', their identity, and I think there is a real hunger for teamwork."
This has produced "fringe" groups which are now being taken up by the big houses - Cheek by Jowl, Theatre de Complicité. But these offer a different sort of performance - low-cost, experimental. More mainstream attempts to form companies, by actors such as Ian Mcellen, fizzled out after a few high-profile seasons, thwarted, it seems, by the hierarchical constraints that determine the allocation of roles.
But Kelly's belief in the rep ideal may be an indication that the tide really is changing. Quite independently of Hall's project, she has planned a season at Leeds in May in which an ensemble of 11 will act in seven new plays.
"The British actor is very highly tuned and very highly skilled, but that training has come from the past and may suddenly become lost," Kelly explains. "People have become centred on their own careers. I'm trying to re-establish the idea that creative teams are capable of working together on a range of productions."
Hall reckons that his strength is his freedom from the entanglements of public subsidy. "Of course, repertory is expensive, but I haven't got any public money at all. I never asked for any: I couldn't face going through all the agony of applying to the Arts Council and I knew I wouldn't get anything if I did.
"I know perfectly well that if they did a feasibility study on whether London needed this theatre, the answer would be 'No'. It's only possible because we have such a generous patron in David Mirvish."
The Mirvish family, Canadian retail giants who own the Old Vic, are believed to have put up a production budget of about £700,000, and Hall must fill 650 of the 1,000 seats to break even. "That's quite difficult," says Hall. "Our arrangement goes on until I lose so much money that they close me down. It is a hell of a gamble. It would be much safer for me to do a couple of plays, another in New York, an opera in San Francisco.........
"But this is like a holiday camp after the RSC or the National. There's just six of us in one office - no meetings, no Arts Council, no catering committee to sit on. And, above all, it's what I wanted, to have a proper company."
Peter Hall in interview with John Whitley.
Daily Telegraph, 10.3.97.