Edward Hall: Interview
Hampstead theatre is on the road to recovery - and new boss Edward Hall is in the driver's seat
When Edward Hall was appointed artistic director of Hampstead Theatre in 2010, he inherited a bright new building in the doldrums. Since its Lottery-funded move to larger, costlier, purpose-built premises in 2003, the 52-year-old theatre had struggled to survive its own success. Overheads rose and the quality, particularly of new writing, declined. At times, critics wondered if anyone was even reading the scripts. And some supporters mourned the old 152-seat 'hut', a rickety temporary structure which lasted 40 years and produced plays of permanent worth: new works by Michael Frayn, Mike Leigh and Brian Friel, many of which transferred to the West End.
'Things were artistically and financially fragile,' says Hall, whose exuberant self-confidence - and two decades of experience, including running his acclaimed all-male Shakespeare company, Propeller - clearly impressed Hampstead's board. 'I had to turn things in another direction very, very rapidly. So I couldn't do exactly what I wanted.' He had a two-space policy: downstairs in the tiny Michael Frayn space, an under-the-radar incubator for new writing - 'something that responded to the impulse of the original building'; upstairs in the main house, 'broader horizons' meaning revivals as well as new work, notably Mike Leigh's revival of his own play 'Ecstasy'.
Leigh has a big name and a dedicated audience so 'Ecstasy', the first West End transfer of Hall's directorship, seemed destined to sell well. Today, Hall is hugely excited about his second West End transfer which is smaller but, in terms of Hampstead's credibility as a new talent-incubator, significant. This week, Morgan Lloyd Malcolm's first full-length play, 'Belongings' moves from the downstairs space to the similarly-sized Trafalgar Studios 2.
Despite hosting a number of revivals in his first season, culminating in this month's residency for his own all-male Shakespeare company, Propeller, Hall sees Hampstead as 'an identity theatre whose identity is new writing'. The downstairs space is crucial to proving that. Studio shows are unreviewed and free to fail commercially: 'They can't make money, therefore they don't have to,' says Hall. But they take their chance in front of an audience rather than being developed to death - 'Writers say, we don't want to be kept in a crêche and kept busy, we want the show to go on.'
Finding the right time and space - and audience - for new writing is nearly as much of a challenge as finding the writers. Christmas is the wrong time for innovation. Melly Still's terrific production of 'Beasts and Beauties' is returning again in 2011 because 'a family buying a family ticket doesn't want to take someone else's risks for them.' But Hall, who completes his first season with '74 per cent audiences and a small surplus', is 'cautiously optimistic' about re-carving Hampstead's niche in a larger space. 'Any theatre that runs on the scale of Hampstead, with 320-odd seats on sale each night, has to have broad metropolitan appeal as well as support in its own back yard.
'Word-of-mouth, he says, 'works everywhere'. In the studio, 'people have tweeted and Facebooked when they've enjoyed shows and the audiences have grown very quickly'. Nina Raine's 'Tiger Country' was the successful piece of in-house new writing on the main stage this season and it began, says Hall, with 'a tiny, tiny advance then snowballed'.
It set a new box office record for the venue - which was smashed again by 'Ecstasy'. 'I felt calmer after “Tiger Country”', Hall admits. 'I felt that if we put work in front of people that they responded to, it would translate to the box office and enable us to do it again.' In a venue that's already 30 per cent leaner, Hall's now tying each production's costs to what it's likely to recoup at the box office. Next season, every play in the main house - except for the family shows - is a new play. Steve Thompson, Nicholas Wright, Simon Stephens and Richard Nelson team up with big-wheel directors Hall, Richard Eyre, Katie Mitchell and Roger Michell.
Hall is the son of another of British theatre's big wheels: Peter Hall, founder of the RSC. But Hall Junior didn't always want to follow in his father's footsteps. He ran a recording studio, played cricket for Hampshire under-19s, got injured, went to university, dropped out (out of pure boredom) and trained as an actor before turning to directing.
He has a bluff energy and directness that's also visible in the work of Propeller (their new 'Comedy of Errors' is set on the 'Costa del Ephesus, in the spirit of cheap package holidays, naff shades and too much sangria', while 'Richard III' continues Hall's celebrated 'Rose Rage' cycle, with a 'chorus of orderlies in a gothic hospital madhouse'.)
When Hall remembers being 'around theatre' as a child, it was the 'formalised playground' backstage and the spirit of misrule that drew him in. He cracks up remembering Michael Bogdanov's production of 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' in which the kids got to sing along with a song whose lyrics were 'bums and tits, bums and tits, hip hip hooray'.
Hampstead will need that energy and sense of fun in the adult programme too if it's going to make new writing work - though big directors at the helm should help with the transfer market. Hall faces the future with open arms: 'I want this to be a theatre where writers and directors come to play. It's a unique space. You don't need to be locked in to kitchen-sink proscenium. The main stage is hydraulic, the seats are moveable. Come to me with a 20-man piece about Charles I or an intimate two-man show and we can do both. We can do anything.'