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Peter Hall: A Service of Thanksgiving

September 26, 2018

Westminster Abbey, 11th September 2018.

For the record, without the kindness of Sir Peter Hall taking a few moments to chat to a couple of teenagers at the National Theatre following the press night of “Martine,” there could well have been no Theatremonkey.com. His gentle interest made me feel even more “at home” in his theatre, and the variety of work he produced there sparked the lifelong passion that is both work and leisure interest.

To lose him to such a tragic illness was shattering to an entire community last year. A year later, to be able to say a proper “goodbye” at a service open to the public at Westminster Abbey was an honour.

Memorial services for much loved and hugely important people are something I’ve never attended before, so this was a novel experience. The surreal began outside, having figured out exactly where the “Sanctuary and Great West Door” were (just follow the other people in suits) and finding it swamped in barriers. Some of the “great and good” (and others who could afford taxis) drove between the mesh railings. Us pedestrians detoured a quarter-mile around the entire issue, a formally-dressed stream running behind “sightseers” either there star-spotting or just irritated that the place was closed to tourists for the event.

Once on the far side, “volunteer ushers” provided directions and ticket checks, paparazzi photographed everybody, and I do mean everybody, in the hope that someone might be worth it!

Directed into the Nave, over 1000 admirers lucky enough to secure tickets were treated to an “Order of Service” as well as a hardback copy of Sir Peter Hall’s lecture on “Shakespeare’s Verse” to Trinity College as keepsakes of a remarkable life and career. That some saw fit to hawk them on Ebay later that evening upset me more than I can say.

Twenty minutes before the service proper began, the London Philharmonic Orchestra gave us “Fantasia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli” by Tippett, as TV screens (on which we would watch much of the service obscured by Organ Gallery) showed slides of productions in his stunningly varied career.

Dame Judi Dench opened proceedings with a scene from Act 5 of “Antony And Cleopatra,” reminding us that he did “bestrid the ocean” in his way. Soprano Lucy Crowe, the choir and orchestra gave Intoitus and Kyrie from Requien k626 by Mozart, followed by “He Who Would Valiant Be” and the Bidding from the Dean of Westminster, Dr John Hall.

Sir David Hare gave the tribute from a pulpit close to where I was sitting. A reminder of how Sir Peter supported him after the first night of “Plenty” against a Board wishing to close the production due to the reviews.

The “Serenade” from Don Giovanni had Sir Thomas Allen’s unamplified voice reach all corners of the Abbey, before Gregory Doran read from Ecclesiastes 3 (To every thing there is a season).

Ralph Vaughan Williams “The Cloud-Capp’d Towers” from “The Tempest” was followed by Vanessa Redgrave at the lecturn reading 1 Corinthians 13 (When I was a child).

Sir Trevor Nunn then gave the Address. A memory of their first meeting, a recount of the battles given in protecting the arts from public spending cuts, but most of all, a recollection of two Suffolk boys who called each other “mate.” Heartfelt and heartwarming.

“Jerusalem” followed – and yes, the mighty Abbey Organ, a thundering hymn, why shouldn’t a monkey join in with gusto. And I did.

Alone on the stone floor in front of the High Alter, actor David Suchet proceeded to do his best to remind us just how magnificent Peter Shaffer’s writing could be in the hands of a great actor and director. Act 1, Scene 5 of “Amadeus,” as Salieri hears Mozart’s music for the first time would have brought a house down – and did the Church equivalent.

If that wasn’t moving enough, the Hall children gave thanks as prayers were said for the wisdom and spirit of Sir Peter Hall, his family whom he loved above all else, those who mourn him and the theatrical community. Those, I take to my heart.

A blessing, then the Monteverdi Choir’s version of “Es Ist Nun Aus Mit Meinem Leben” by JC Bach, a further blessing and, to end, the final scene of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” performed by Sir Ian Holm, Lucy Crowe, Tim Mead, the Choristers from the Choir of Westminster and the orchestra.

The clergy and some guests left to the sound of JS Bach’s “Sinfonia to Cantata 29” before the church bells rang out loud around Parliament Square in his honour.

A few minutes wait, and we re-emerged into the sunlight of early Autumn London. Crowds still behind barriers, photographers still active – but thankfully no detour around barriers to get back to the tube. Moving, memorable for all the right reasons, intense and bittersweet. A truly family occasion, atmosphere to match, which the Hall family were kind enough to share. A fitting tribute to a talent the like of which we shall never see again.

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