Remembering a titan of British theater

Tina Packer reflects on lessons learned from Peter Hall

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STOCKBRIDGE — Shakespeare & Company's now-retired founding artistic director Tina Packer, who turns 79 later this month, was in her mid-20s and fresh out of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts when, after 10 auditions, she made it into the Royal Shakespeare Company. There, she worked with its galvanic leader, Peter Hall, a titan of British theater who died Monday in a London hospital at age 86.

"I hadn't done much — two repertory theaters and a bit of television," Packer said by phone from her home in Stockbridge, which she shares with her husband, Dennis Krausnick, "but they took me on as an associate artist, which meant they were going to keep me around for a while."

It was the mid-'60s. "They had just completed their 'War of the Roses' cycle, which I had seen," Packer said with a hearty laugh.

Packer did a few small roles at the RSC, most notably understudying Glenda Jackson when she played Ophelia in Hall's production of "Hamlet."

"I actually went on one night," Packer said. Where Jackson had been playing Ophelia with repressed restraint, Packer went full out.

"I remember the assistant director asking me, incredulously after a rehearsal, 'you're not going to play Ophelia like that?' 'I said to him 'yes, I am,'" Packer said.

Packer described Hall as "a whiz kid at that time, a star of the British theater."

Among Hall's accomplishments was the founding of the RSC in 1960, when he was just 29 and which he led for eight years. He became director of the National Theatre in London in 1973. By the time he left in 1988, he had orchestrated the company's move into its current West Bank complex and made it one of the UK's leading theaters. He directed the first English-language production of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot." On this side of the Atlantic, he won Tony Awards for his direction of Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming" (1967) and Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus" (1981).

"He particularly loved the politics of theater, especially working with boards of directors," Packer said. "He was a politician in the very best sense of the word. If I remember correctly, he was responsible for securing a permanent line in the government budget for the RSC and, again, later for the National Theatre."

Packer says most of the lessons she learned from Hall had applications for her more as a director than as an actress.

"Watching him direct," Packer said, "I learned how much sense he had of the rhythm of a play, about building scene upon scene, about how a Shakespeare play flows; orchestrating music to the overall symphony of the play."

She last saw Hall when they shared a taxi in London. It was the mid-'70s. She had just returned from 10 months in the United States, working — with the aid of a Ford Foundation grant for which Hall had provided a reference — with 15 actors on developing a model for running a Shakespeare company.

It fell apart. Packer returned to London at a low time, she said, and sought advice from Hall.

They met in his office and continued their conversation in a taxi that was taking Hall to a meeting across the city.

"He listened carefully to me and then told me that, if I wanted to run a company, I should not get as close to my actors as I had been; that I wouldn't be able to give actors what they needed unless I created some separation from them," Packer recalled. "That's the last time I saw him. It's my lasting impression.

"He was a giant," Packer said, reflectively, "an institution-builder. British theater would not be the same without him."

Reach Jeffrey Borak at 413-496-6212


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