Talented, award-nominated director Edward Hall is the second generation in one of British theatre's powerhouse families. His father has shaped some of the UK's most influential theatrical institutions. Which is why, when Matthew Amer met him at the Old Vic, where Hall's productions of The Taming Of The Shrew and Twelfth Night are playing in rep, he does not mention him at all.
It is a wet, miserable evening, and sitting on the opposite side of a desk to Hall in the company office at the Old Vic feels a little like being at a job interview, though I am the one asking the questions. It is easy to refer to Hall as a young director – his round face, rosy cheeks and thick, wavy locks of hair give him a perennially young look – but with over 30 productions to his name, including the multi award-winning Rose Rage, he has been around long enough to build a reputation for being at the top of his field.
As a director, the majority of his work has come in theatre, as opposed to film or television. That, some might say, was the life he was born into. He feels the history and heritage of spaces like the Old Vic which, he says, "feels like coming home because so many great performances have happened here, so many different productions down the ages. You feel you're just adding a little bit more to that."
He is. Hall has joined the Old Vic as an Associate Director, which means that his all-male company Propeller will have a London base for their productions, the first two of which examine two very different 'love stories' from Shakespeare's canon; The Taming Of The Shrew and Twelfth Night.
"He makes his own bed, then he has to lie in it"
The Taming Of The Shrew is one of Shakespeare's least performed plays and has its critics. The core of the plot sees Petruchio torture his wife Kate into submission in a way that, if it was happening in reality, would see him locked away for a very long time. Hall's version, which has both leads played by men, is more physical than past productions, leading to an even more disturbing theatre of cruelty.
Yet Hall was never worried about the misogynistic claims aimed at the text: "I felt very strongly from the text that if you take it psychologically seriously, it felt to me like Petruchio gets gripped by a sort of madness. He's a very arrogant young man – we've all seen them, we know who they are – and he keeps saying 'I'm going to do this, I promise to do this'. He makes his own bed, then he has to lie in it. Of course, when she kicks back at him it makes his behaviour more extreme, which makes her behaviour more extreme. Finally, because of his social position it is easy for him to physically, emotionally, spiritually and socially dominate her. He even bullies her into marrying him because he wants the dowry."
Hall's defence of the play, though it is not so much a defence as an explanation of why he wanted to stage it, involves the often dropped opening scenes involving Christopher Sly. Sly, a "drunken lout" is shown a play, which he enters into and takes the role of Petruchio. Hall describes it as "a wish fulfilment fantasy; this is what happens if you treat your woman the way you want to, she happens to complain and you don't give in."
He is also effusive about the character of Kate. "She's given a very narrow choice at certain points in the play," he says, "where she capitulates to him. She's choosing the lesser of two evils. His torture of her and his psychological control of her is terrifying in its meticulousness and execution; lack of sleep, lack of food, messing her mind around. She's extraordinary in the way she lasts as long as she does." In the relationship he sees a touch of Stockholm Syndrome, where a captive develops an emotional bond with their captor. "When he makes tender gestures to her, that act of kindness is something that she craves at moments because of the levels of abuse he's been giving her," he explains.
"Everyone thought I was a lunatic"
Despite all the explanation, there still seems to be a bit of a blank spot surrounding the question of misogyny. Although he's never defensive, each response seems to skirt around the subject without addressing it. Hall is more forthright about the suggestion that all-male companies take work away from actresses. "I would argue that I'm actually creating work for actors," he says dismissively. "There aren't enough jobs for female directors, so I shouldn't really be directing it!"
Hall, with Propeller, is best known for his Shakespearean work and the style in which it is presented. Shows such as Rose Rage and A Midsummer Night's Dream have won him acclaim and awards. Hall returns to Shakespeare so often simply because, he says, "He's written a lot of very good plays." He goes on to explain that "I think good theatre is about metaphor, and Shakespeare's poetic drama is chocked full of it."
Hall's work with Propeller is characterised by pace, a minimal use of set but adventurous use of props, and a cast that can turn their hand to music, scene shifting, fight choreography and any other roles that can be thought up for them. Though Hall is quick to point out that nothing about the way they work is set in stone, the pacing of the show, which has a knock on effect for lengthy scene changes, is very important to him. "If you can't move quickly from scene to scene," he says, "and keep the movement from scene to scene as part of the narrative, then you lose that dynamic, which is one of the great secrets about making it thread together."
Propeller's most famous use of props came in Rose Rage, an adaptation of Henry VI Parts I, II and III. The plot concerned civil war raging in England, but Hall didn't want to use staged violence to express the horror. "I wanted to somehow represent it in a more imaginative way," he explains, "so you could get a feel for what was going on, which is where the idea for the butchers came from and the real meat. To me, that was in keeping with the surreal, unnaturalistic plain on which [Shakespeare's] writing exists." The butchers and meat to which Hall refers was the practice of chopping up meat on stage to represent the grizzly reality of war. "Everyone thought I was a lunatic," he laughs.
"It's like being at university all your life"
Whether Hall would do the same thing if he was to stage the production again today is another matter. The birth of his daughter has, as it has a habit of doing, made a large impression on the director: "I'm much more aware of violence and inhumanity. I'm much more aware of all those things because with Georgia [his daughter] you're aware that this little person is learning about the world and life and everything; what's going on around her. They're like sponges, kids, and you become very sensitised towards that; you have to re-examine your own attitudes to everything and you have to explain things now, to a child, why things are the way they are. I think that has changed me; it's certainly made me sleep less, which is lovely."
Hall's first professional production was Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, staged, he says, because it only needed four actors and one set. With an almost unlimited collection of texts at his disposal, and slightly more money to produce them these days, how does Hall decide which projects he would like to direct now? "I have to really enjoy reading it and not quite be sure how to do it, and then, to me, that makes me want to try. I think when I read something and it explains itself very successfully on the page then I think probably that's an indication that there might not be enough for the audience to find out when they watch it. Scripts that read terribly well, sometimes you have to ask yourself, why do they read well? You have to make sure that everything isn't too served up, because there's always that tiny bit where the writing engages with the actors and the director, where the writer's not sure what's going to happen when you start rehearsing it. That part of the process starts to create the play. Then you put that in front of an audience and that really makes the act of theatre. Those missing bits have to be there for me when I read something."
When asked what question he would like to ask himself, Hall responds very quickly with "Why do you do it?" It's a question that always hints at dissatisfaction or turmoil, yet Hall never seems anything less than passionate about his chosen art. He's not a fan of working in theatres built at the end of the 20th century which double as conference centres and concert halls, but that's surely not enough to put a dampener on his spirit. Some of his decisions could be seen as controversial, but if nothing else that means people are talking about his work, which is surely at least half the point of theatre.
So why does he do it? "Because no two days are the same," he says, "and culture, art and discussion are at the centre of every community and it's the thing that makes a society work. It's so important and being part of that great debate and argument is really looking at what it is to be a person. In a sense it's like being at university all your life, you learn all the time. It's fascinating… I think variety is the spice of life and it's very stimulating to be doing different things, working with different people and it's an education all the time, actually. For me, any sense of repetition in my days sends me running for the hills."