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Visionary British theater director Peter Hall dies at 86

LONDON (AP) — Peter Hall, a visionary theater director and impresario who founded the Royal Shakespeare Company and helped build Britain’s National Theatre into a producing powerhouse, has died. He was 86.

Hall died Monday at a London hospital surrounded by his family, The National Theatre said Tuesday. He had been suffering from dementia.

Passionate, prolific and supremely self-confident, Hall was one of the most influential figures in British theater since World War II. Richard Eyre, one of his successors at the National Theatre, said he “created the template of the modern director — part magus, part impresario, part celebrity.”

Patrick Stewart, who performed with the RSC as a young actor, tweeted that Hall “transformed classical and modern U.K. theater and gave me a career.”

Born in eastern England 1930, the son of a railway stationmaster, Hall began directing as a student at Cambridge University.

In 1955, when he was 25, Hall directed the first English-language production of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” an avant-garde drama more experienced directors had shunned.

It wasn’t an immediate success. Hall later recalled that “on the line, ‘Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes. It’s awful,’ a very English voice said loudly: ‘Hear! hear!'”

But it brought Hall to wide notice, and the play soon came to be seen as transformational, paving the way for Harold Pinter, Joe Orton and other rebellious playwrights.

Hall founded the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960, when he was just 29, and led it for eight years, establishing a company of talented actors, directors and designers with bases in London and Stratford-upon-Avon.

He became director of the National Theatre in 1973, overseeing the company’s problem-plagued move into a striking concrete complex beside the River Thames — accomplished with a mix of attention to detail and iron will that gained him both praise and criticism.

He led the National until 1988, directing productions including his own adaptation of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” the premieres of Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land” and “Betrayal” and Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus,” which went on to take Broadway by storm.

Hall twice won Tony Awards for best director, for “Amadeus” and Pinter’s “The Homecoming.” He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1977.

He directed acting greats including Judi Dench and Anthony Hopkins in a 1987 “Anthony and Cleopatra,” Dustin Hoffman in “The Merchant of Venice” in 1989 and Dench again in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 2010.

He helmed his own Peter Hall Company between 1988 and 2011, led the Rose Theatre Kingston when it opened in 2003, and was director of the Glyndebourne opera festival between 1984 and 1990.

His opera work also included productions for the Royal Opera, the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Bayreuth Festival in Germany, where he staged Richard Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” in 1983 to mark the centenary of the composer’s death.

His final production at the National Theatre was “Twelfth Night” in 2011. He was diagnosed with dementia shortly afterward.

Throughout his career Hall was a passionate advocate of government support for theater, lacerating governments — both Conservative and Labour — he saw as unfriendly to the arts.

Nicholas Hytner, who led the National Theatre between 2003 and 2015, called Hall “the great theatrical buccaneer of the 20th century.”

“Without him there would have been no Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre’s move to the South Bank might have ended in ignominious failure, and the whole idea of the theater as a public service dedicated both to high seriousness and popularity would not have seized the public imagination,” Hytner said.

The National Theatre’s current director, Rufus Norris, said: “We all stand on the shoulders of giants and Peter Hall’s shoulders supported the entirety of British theater as we know it.”

Hall was married four times: to actress Leslie Caron, former personal assistant Jacqueline Taylor, opera singer Maria Ewing and publicist Nicki Frei. He is survived by wife and ex-wives, six children, including director Edward Hall and actress Rebecca Hall, and nine grandchildren.

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