Sour Notes

D.A.N. Jones

  • Peter Hall’s Diaries: The Story of a Dramatic Battle edited by John Goodwin
    Hamish Hamilton, 507 pp, £12.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 241 11047 5

Sir Peter Hall is a man of Notes. He is a director of plays who has become Director of the National Theatre. The skills of play directors are not those of performers (like his predecessor at the National, Lord Olivier). Play directors pride themselves on their ability to give what they call Notes. This sort of Note (scarcely recognised by dictionaries) is not the sort manual workers make, in notebooks or on notepaper: it is mouth work. Sometimes it is like the tuning note given to a band by piano or woodwind; sometimes like a note of disapproval or approbation uttered by a schoolmaster to his class, or a professor to his seminar. So now, in Sir Peter’s diary, we find the National Director descending upon the actors rehearsing Horvath’s play, Tales from the Vienna Woods, under the direction of Maximilian Schell:

Work on Vienna Woods this morning, and all the company together for Notes at lunchtime. At Max’s invitation I spoke my thoughts to them ... I said that the audience’s pleasure at the story had trapped the actors into indulging their feelings, and the stage was awash with sentiment. Also, the music making, instead of being schmaltzy and to be taken critically, had become hearty English party singing, and sweet, well-loved waltzes. This afternoon Max put the company through five hours of hair-splitting Notes; and there was smouldering anger about the place, the result of many days of unrest. The preview tonight was both better and worse. Better because it was harder and lacking in indulgent pathos, worse because the actors were tired and fed up.

That is what Notes are like. There is a special sort of language to be used when directing plays and operas, changing the tone and style of the production by using the words of theatre and music reviewers (associative, eloquent words, like ‘hearty’ and ‘schmaltzy’), trying not to sound like nagging spouses, trying not to irritate the performers with ‘hairsplitting Notes’.

Play directors may come to suppose that everything can be done by Notes. When I was a student I appeared in a play by Michael Codron, directed by his friend, Adrian Brown: just before we went on, Codron appeared to give us a Note. ‘Adrian is making this too heavy and Germanic,’ he said. ‘I want it to be light, French, a soufflé.’ This confused us performers and wrecked the show. Later in life, Codron became more expert at giving Notes. He appears in Hall’s diary instructing him (by telegram) to release Stuart Burge from the National Theatre to work at the Royal Court, to save it (for the nation, I suppose). Hall obeys the Note, and releases the talented director for his salvage work at Chelsea. The Secretary-General of the Arts Council thanks Hall ‘for being public-spirited about Burge’. A nice Note of approbation. But Hall growls in his diary: ‘Public-spirited be damned. I have had to bow to the inevitable and it’s upset me very much.’

It is hard work, skilled work, giving Notes to performers in plays and operas. But we may wonder whether this skill is enough for running three theatres in the Waterloo complex: one cannot direct the national press and public, the governing committees and backstage staff, as if they were eager play-actors, just needing a few Notes.

Hall’s predecessor, Lord Olivier, is a performer. He calculates, with sincerity, the effect he wishes to produce. He knew the names of his backstage staff and sent their wives flowers when they had babies: his dressing-room door was open to staff with problems for half an hour before a performance. (Or so I am told. Legends abound at the National Theatre, as in a regiment, with rankers’ gossip about the old colonel.) Olivier’s technique with the governing boards may be guessed by reading a recent newspaper letter from Lady Cottesloe, commending her husband’s skill in dealing with ‘that lovable prima donna, Laurence Olivier’. Olivier has also written a book, Confessions of an Actor, in which he confesses that he was displeased at being succeeded, without consultation, by Peter Hall, when he would have preferred Michael Blakemore. Oliver’s book is written: the author has calculated the effects which he wished to produce.

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