Stage Veteran to Launch Old Vic Series

LONDON -- At 66, Sir Peter Hall has nothing left to prove in British theater. But he wants to fill one of London's most famous theaters seven days a week.

The bearded workaholic, who founded the Royal Shakespeare Company and transformed Britain's National Theater, is launching a 12-play repertoire at the Old Vic next month with his own hand-picked team of 20 actors.

"It is one of my three favorite theaters in the world, and there is a certain symmetry about my coming back here after 23 years," said the doyen of the British stage who has directed every star from Charles Laughton to Dustin Hoffman.

"It is an awesome thing to do, but I have to have a go," Hall said on launching into rehearsals for a gruelling 40-week season that begins March 4.

He will be directing Shakespeare's "King Lear" for the first time and returning to Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," whose English-language premiere he launched in 1955.

Hall chose to portray the two leading Beckett characters as tramps, a stage direction that has directly affected every production of the play since then.

"I didn't know what I was doing. It is the difference between being 24 and 66. The play absolutely changed my life personally and professionally. I always wanted to come back to it when I was grown up," he said.

But Hall will not be relying only on the classics to return the Old Vic to the glory days of its Tyrone Guthrie and Laurence Olivier repertory companies.

Six of the plays will be new works.

"There is a huge mass of new writing about, a wonderful renaissance that is not reaching London's West End. It is all going to small theaters, and they are getting ghetto-ized," Hall said.

"Repertory allows you to get the public's verdict. When I launched David Hare's 'Plenty' at the National, it got terrible reviews. I was able to nurse it in repertory. The public did not agree with the critics, and it became a hit," he added.

Age has not dimmed the zest of the combative Hall, hailed as a theater visionary but also accused of being a power-mad dictator and a workaholic.

Asked if he had mellowed with the years, Hall said: "I think one gets better as one gets older. I think when you are 24 and ask someone to do something, they say why or no. Now they are more likely to try it."

Canadian producer David Mirvish, who has sunk ?700,000 ($1.14 million) into the new company, has no illusions about the risks involved.

"What we are doing is expensive and dangerous," he said. "Nothing is predictable in the theater, but one thing I am confident about is Peter Hall keeping me on my toes. There will be fireworks on stage."

Hall is challenging head-on the state subsidized theaters he helped to create and is trying to wean audiences away from the West End theaterland dominated by big budget musicals.

Hall, who picked up 130 major awards during his 15-year stint with the National Theater, revolutionized the way Shakespeare's dialogue was delivered, making it far more conversational and accessible.

He warmly welcomed the recent spate of Shakespeare films but said: "They do go in waves. One makes money and then all the moguls say about Shakespeare 'Gee, is he available?'"