Sir Peter Hall Unveils ‘The Naked Shakespeare’

“Now you’ve got my adrenaline going,” Sir Peter Hall is telling me.

I’d got him onto the subject that is his personal crusade, his virtual obsession in the realm of Shakespearean playing: just how to speak the speech, or “verse-speaking,” as it’s known in the trade. It’s a crusade he’s now brought to the New York stage: He’s just come from a casting session to see if he can find New York actors capable of embodying his particular version of verse-speaking. Which does not , he emphasizes, have anything to do with British accents; Sir Peter believes, in fact, that American speech accents are, if anything, closer to Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English than current British pronunciation. But it does have everything to do with meter and line structure.

Over dinner at a cozy Hudson Street place called the Treehouse, Sir Peter has been slapping the table to beat out the iambic-pentameter rhythm of the Shakespearean line; he’s been clapping his hands to point up the line-ending pauses, crucial to the “line structure” of certain passages he’d been quoting. Line structure is a feature of verse-speaking at least as important–and far more disastrously neglected, he believes–as the emphasis on meter that has come to be called, by some, “iambic fundamentalism.”

He’s been singing the praises of a largely forgotten fin-de-siècle Shakespearean producer and director, William Poel, and “the Poel principles” that Sir Peter says were the “foundation stone” of his own tremendous achievement: founding the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Stratford-based troupe that changed, perhaps forever, the way that Shakespeare is spoken and played. He’s been lamenting the fact that so few get it right anymore.

Verse-speaking–a virtual lost art he fears may be disappearing for good–has got his adrenaline going, he says, though he hardly seems the sort to need any artificial boost in adrenaline levels. Now 70, he is still a whirling dervish of theatrical fecundity. When I had dinner with him back in December, he’d just flown in from Denver, where he’d premiered his massive 10-play, 10-and-a-half-hour Greek-myth marathon known as Tantalus , which was written by his long-time R.S.C. collaborator John Barton. (The two of them had made the R.S.C. famous in the early 60’s with another kind of marathon–their epic staging of Shakespeare’s history plays under the rubric The Wars of the Roses .)

And after a casting session for Troilus and Cressida here, he would fly to L.A. to direct Romeo and Juliet at the Ahmanson Theatre, after which he returns to New York to rehearse Troilus for an April 15 opening at the American Place Theatre (previews begin April 3).

Jeffrey Horowitz, artistic director of the Theater for a New Audience, which is producing the play, had asked me to join him and Sir Peter to discuss the play over dinner.

Troilus , of course, is perhaps the most brilliantly bitter play Shakespeare ever wrote. It’s been a minority taste until recently because it’s so vicious and dark, but really, who in our time could not love a play that ends with a dying pimp (Pandarus) wishing his venereal diseases upon the audience: Til then I’ll sweat and seek about for eases, / And at that time bequeath you my diseases .

It’s a play so relentlessly caustic and corrosive, so bleak and melancholy, it’s almost as if Shakespeare opened a vein and black bile rather than blood spilled out upon the page. But it’s fun, too, to see all the piety that Western culture has lavished upon the Greek mythic heroes lampooned so wickedly and savagely by Shakespeare in Troilus . One way to think of Troilus is as Shakespeare’s disillusioned and hostile rewrite of the romanticism of Romeo and Juliet , played by a cast of fools and degenerates.

As Sir Peter sums it up: “Troilus is in many respects a fool, Cressida a manipulative tart, Ulysses a very scheming, amoral politician. Agamemnon’s a fool; Ajax is a dope; Achilles is a narcissistic, irresponsible queen. I mean, one could go on. You know, if you asked a Broadway producer whether we should do this, he’ll say no. He’ll say ….”

“Where’s the love?”

He laughs. “Pandarus–I mean, please, that last speech ….”

I asked Sir Peter for a reaction to a question I’ve always had about Troilus : “Do you think Troilus reflects some sort of Shakespearean nervous breakdown into a kind of utter, bitter bleakness, as some scholars claim, or is it the play when the mask drops and the bleakness that was always there in Shakespeare makes itself apparent?”

“I think that’s the reality, yes,” he says. “I think it’s the reality. I think he wrote two plays with an absolute, arrogant indifference to the public or whether the public liked them or understood them. And one is Troilus and the other is Hamlet . I mean, Hamlet lasts four hours 15 minutes. And he didn’t care a fuck. ‘Really,’ he said, ‘this is what I want to write.’ And with Troilus ….”

“He gave Pandarus that last speech, wishing venereal disease on the audience.”

“Oh, amazing,” he says. “I mean, that is a man who hates his audience. Really.”

“So this is the naked Shakespeare, do you think?”

“I think it is the naked Shakespeare, yes. Because there’s something of the same note in Timon of Athens . But there’s nothing bleaker, I think, in the whole canon than Troilus . The 18th and 19th centuries couldn’t abide the play. I mean, the Enlightenment–[ Troilus ] reduces the whole of human life to lechery and war, and the Victorians were shocked out of their minds by it.”

The naked Shakespeare: Perhaps we’ll never know if this Shakespeare, the Shakespeare of Troilus , is a more true and authentic Shakespeare than the one of Romeo and Juliet or As You Like It , or just another mask. But there is a way, Sir Peter believes, to get closer to the language in which that nakedness is clothed. If dreams are “the royal road to the unconscious,” as Freud maintained, thenverse-speaking,line structure–those “Poel principles” Sir Peter devoutly believes in and crusades for–are the royal road to Shakespeare’s soul. In any case, it was the Royal Shakespeare Company’s route for the 15 years Sir Peter presided over it–a period that transformed the way Shakespeare was played–until he left to take over the National Theatre from Laurence Olivier.

Shakespearean verse-speaking: It’s something I’ve become quite fascinated with lately, having come to the conviction that there is a level of speare that can only be accessed by a disciplined effort to speak it aloud oneself. That reading or seeing or hearing it spoken by others can only take you so far. That learning to embody the sound can take you farther. A conviction further confirmed recently when I sat in on a couple of terrifically enlightening verse-speaking classes taught (at the Shakespeare Society) by the distinguished actor Barrie Ingham, who’s played a number of lead roles for the R.S.C. (Mr. Ingham said that my rendition of the Ghost’s speech in Hamlet was “very scary,” which I think was a compliment.)

Anyway, for Sir Peter, it all comes down to the Poel principles: “There are about 50 actors in England who know the Poel principles and about a half-dozen directors, and that’s it. The actors are all avid for it; directors aren’t. Directors tend to pretend to know about verse when they don’t.”

William Poel was the stage director who, at the turn of the last century, did much to divest Shakespearean staging of the Victorian encrustations that had encumbered it: the massive sets and painted scenery that took so much time to roll on and off that it imposed a leaden pace on plays originally played on bare stages with lightning-like scene changes that anticipated cinematic cutting. Poel also sought to divest Shakespearean staging of the lumbering pomposity of much verse-speaking, to restore to it something more of Hamlet’s swift-footed ideal: to “speak the speech trippingly on the tongue.”

Enter Peter Hall. He was born in 1930, the son of a railway stationmaster, which I find fascinating for someone famous for wanting to make the verse run on time, so to speak; to make it follow a rhythm he might have become attuned to from the iambic beat of the steam-engine pistons, the click-clack of the tracks. It turns out that his father’s occupation was crucial to his finding his calling in Shakespeare: A free rail pass permitted him to travel to London at an early age to see theater, and his life changed when he saw John Gielgud’s legendary Hamlet .

“I saw Gielgud play Hamlet in 1942, when I was 12, and that was what fixed me.” That and Ralph Richardson’s Falstaff, which he calls “Probably the best performance I’ve ever seen. He was great–the greatest actor I’ve ever seen.”

(Recently, I attended a rehearsal, in Harold Bloom’s apartment, of the reading he gave as Falstaff for the Shakespeare Society, and Mr. Bloom told me that seeing Richardson’s Falstaff at 16 was his transformative Shakespearean moment.)

Charged up by these electrifying performances, Sir Peter went to Cambridge as an undergraduate to learn how to direct Shakespeare. There he encountered two major literary figures who would influence the way he’d do it: F.R. Leavis, who inculcated an attentiveness to the text, to close reading; and George Rylands, who founded the influential Cambridge Marlowe Society.

“It was started in 1907, the idea being to speak Shakespeare as Poel taught it and bring Shakespeare back to the clarity Poel preached. George Rylands, by the time I got there, which was 40 years later, was the don in charge, and he taught all of us–John Barton, Trevor Nunn, Jonathan Miller, Richard Eyre–the principles of Poel’s verse-speaking.”

There are two elements to the Poel principles of verse-speaking, and Peter Hall is known far and wide for the first one, for what some have called “iambic fundamentalism”: his stress on respecting the five-beats-to-a-line, da-DUM-da-DUM meter in speaking Shakespearean verse. And he hasn’t retreated from that one bit. But during dinner, his emphasis was less on the stresses and more on what he calls “line structure”: respecting the integrity of the single line of Shakespearean verse as an organic poetic unit.

The principles of line structure “are very simple,” he said, when I brought the subject up: “You breathe on the end of a line; you never breathe in the middle. You think of it as a whole line, not as a series of words. You find where the meter makes your accent, which is usually alliterative.”

To explain, he intones Antonio’s famous opening line from The Merchant of Venice : “‘In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.’ So you see, ‘sooth’ and ‘sad’ are the accented words.”

Such dictates are not designed to regiment reading in a metrical straitjacket, but to allow the internal dynamics counterpoised within the line to emerge , to allow the relationships between sound, stress and sense implicit in the ordering to blossom as they were intended to, to allow words to chime as chords rather than jangle in discord. Indeed, Sir Peter prefers to refer to the Shakespearean text as “the score” or the “scoring” (he’s directed a lot of opera as well), and it’s only proper verse-speaking that, he believes, can unlock the musical treasures in the line.

“You can’t appreciate Mozart if you play the wrong notes or the wrong tempo; you’ve got to start by getting that bit right. Why should it be different for Shakespeare?”

And a delicate pause at the end of each line is essential to line structure: “Gielgud said he didn’t need to take a breath for three lines, but you notice, if you listen, he takes a tiny breath at the ends of his lines.”

He cites the opening lines of Troilus and Cressida as an example:

In Troy there lies our scene. From isles of Greece

The princes orgulous, their high blood chafed

Have to the port of Athens sent their ships.

“Now if you run on around the line ends, you don’t understand it.”

He recites it running around the ends of the lines, and it does become a kind of jumble.

“I remember, about 1961 or ’62 in the old rehearsal room at Stratford, suddenly knowing that I knew and that I would always know what the line structure was when I heard a Shakespearean speech. Just from listening. And that’s because I had done so many years of it that it was ingrained in me, and I remember it clicked and I thought, ‘ Christ! ‘ And the consequence is I can hardly watch most Shakespeare, because it irritates me when it’s not used. I’ve done this for 40 years, and if you do it right, it always, always works!”

You must give the man credit. His urgency is genuine. With all his achievements, all his laurels, his knighthood, you sense that Sir Peter feels deeply embattled , fighting what might be a losing war on a question whose stakes are immensely high: recovering, rescuing from obfuscation the naked Shakespeare–or at least the most fully embodied Shakespeare. Releasing, unleashing from the line structure the full power, depth and musicality of an artist who is inexorably slipping further and further and further from our grasp across the abyss of centuries.

Yes, slipping away: Sir Peter spoke of attending a conference on verse-speaking sponsored by the National Theatre the previous year, in which it was generally agreed that we are perhaps the last generation for whom Shakespearean speech will be immediately intelligible at all –as opposed to intelligible only through the kind of half-translation we perform on Chaucer’s Middle English. That precarious intelligibility he believes is what makes the precarious and disappearing art of verse-speaking even more vital, since the One True Way is known now to but 50 actors and a half-dozen directors.

It may sound fanatical, and it should be said that many scholars and directors dissent from the Poel principles, but I know I’ve profited immensely from Peter Hall’s method. I know I found exposure to the Royal Shakespeare Company verse-speaking style transformative when I first experienced it at Stratford, when I saw, back-to-back, two amazing R.S.C. productions: Trevor Nunn’s Hamlet and Peter Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream .

I was just out of college, had only seen a few American productions before then, so nothing prepared me for the astonishing offhand clarity of the verse-speaking. It wasn’t conspicuously acted or emoted; it was expressed as if the actors were thinking it up for the first time. It was like experiencing Shakespeare for the first time. Not all R.S.C. productions have always hit those perfect notes, but after Hall, Barton and Nunn left, the sparkling clarity of the verse-speaking has been maintained at a consistently high level by their longtime associate Cicely Berry (author of the widely used verse-speaking book, The Actor and the Text ), whom I was privileged to meet recently, and who is the R.S.C.’s in-house voice and verse tutor.

And I loved talking about Troilus with Sir Peter. It’s a play that I’ve found more and more depths to each time I’ve reread it. It’s a play he’s wanted to do again for nearly four decades, he told me, ever since he did it at Stratford in a run that derived added frisson when it coincided with the Cuban missile crisis.

But it’s more than an anti-war play, he suggests: “It’s a play about lust in all its forms”–warlike lust for blood, the lust for power, as well as plain old lechery and the war between the sexes.

One of the things that occurred to me while rereading Troilus this time was that there was a deeper connection between Peter Hall’s verse-speaking obsession and a preoccupation close to the heart of this particular play.

Consider the most famous and controversial speech in Troilus , Ulysses’ apotheosis of “degree.” It occurs in the context of a confab between the Greek generals, who are trying to figure out what’s gone wrong, why after a decade of besieging the walls of Troy they seem no closer to conquering the city and retrieving Helen.

Ulysses, cleverest of the Greeks, claims he knows the problem: neglect of degree, neglect of the proper ordering of the affairs of men, the proper regard given to hierarchy and true value as opposed to mere show.

Take but degree away, untune that string,

And, hark what discord follows …

Force should be right, or rather right and wrong … .

Note that “degree” here is not mere hierarchical dominance. Degree in Ulysses’ vision protects the weak from the predations of the strong; it’s about justice as opposed to power and force. Power exercised without a sense of degree, of justness, reduces human community to pure predation, he says:

Then everything includes itself in power,

Power into will, will into appetite;

And appetite, an universal wolf,

So doubly seconded with will and power,

Must make perforce an universal prey,

And last eat up himself .

A stunning vision of self-consuming power, unchecked by degree, that results in an apocalyptic reabsorption of all Being into Chaos and Nothingness, the void before Creation. And that ain’t good.

Of course, one can look at the speech ironically; it comes, after all, from Ulysses, the trickster. But still, reading Ulysses’ degree speech this time, it struck me how it was as much a meditation on order and structure in art as it was on statecraft.

The invocation in the degree speech of “Insisture … proportion … [the] line of order” could be Peter Hall talking about the importance of line structure or metrical regularity. “Insisture” carries connotations of persistence and regularity. That these are aesthetic as much as political preoccupations is signaled by the central metaphor in the degree speech, which comes from music: “Take but degree away, untune that string ….”

The metric structure, the line structure that Sir Peter insists on, is not repressive and confining, but expressive and liberating, like the expressive masks he used in Tantalus . The grace of the ballet depends on the base of rhythmic structure from which the graceful leaps, the spins and pirouettes take off. Improvisation in jazz arises not from nothing, not from noise , but from a melodic or rhythmic base. “Untune that string,” the degree speech concludes on an apocalyptic note, and “the bounded waters” of the earth will overflow “and make a sop of all this solid globe”–return it to the formless mud which preceded creation.

But this is a rather grim, apocalyptic defense of poetic line structure. I came across a rather more playful and seductive one later on in Troilus . It’s at the heart of one of the most controversial moments in the play. Troilus and Cressida’s Romeo and Juliet -like rendezvous has been interrupted: She must be taken from Troy and from Troilus to join her father in the Greek camp. Unlike Romeo, Troilus doesn’t put up much of a fight, and unlike Juliet, Cressida doesn’t try to remain faithful ’til death.

Instead, when she gets to the Greek camp, she exchanges repartee and kisses with the Greek generals who greet her; soon she’ll become the concubine of one of them.

Here’s how Ulysses characterizes Cressida’s flirtatious behavior:

There’s language in her eye, her cheek, her lip

Nay her foot speaks; her wanton spirits look out

At every joint and motive of her body.

So ostensibly it’s about seductive behavior by a woman–but couldn’t it also be seen as evoking the seductive power of language? There’s “language in her eye,” “her foot speaks .” And perhaps that last phrase, “her foot speaks,” suggests that it’s about a particular kind of language, poetic language–whose unit is the line made up of iambic “feet,” the technical term for a da-DUM unit of iambic pentameter. It could suggest an analogy between the way a woman deploys the “line structure” of her body (“every joint and motive”) and the way the body of a poem deploys the line structure of verse: Each releases “wanton spirits,” seductive energy.

The seductiveness of language and the language of seductiveness in those lines about Cressida subverts Ulysses’ official disapproval of her behavior. It suggests that both he and Shakespeare are really on her side, seduced by Cressida’s poetry in motion, almost against their will.

Over dinner, Sir Peter talked about Shakespeare’s apparently hostile attitude toward sex in some of those bleak, middle-period, “nervous breakdown” plays.

“I believe he was betrayed very badly. And I believe he tried to hate sex. And I believe he couldn’t.”

It’s the very dynamic that seems to be going on in Ulysses’ description of Cressida’s “wanton spirits.” He tries to condemn her, but he can’t. The seductiveness of “line structure”–in every sense of the phrase–is just impossible to resist.