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Exposed By the Mask

By Peter Hall
Oberon Books £9.99
160 pages

Dateline: 31st October, 2010

Although this book was first published in 2000, it is worthy of a reprint in this series of otherwise new short volumes.

Exposed by the Mask consists of the series of four Clark Lectures delivered by Sir Peter Hall at Trinity College Cambridge. In them, perhaps the greatest director of the last fifty years muses on the nature of the theatrical experience taking four separate subjects, the Greeks, Shakespeare, Mozart and the moderns that he helped to popularise, Beckett and Pinter.

His first piece gets almost halfway through before reaching the Greeks. Before that, the writer considers the nature of the relationship between those who create theatre and their audience.

This is a fascinating analysis that will undoubtedly provoke thought in anybody who reads it. An immediate consequence is the potential for a very different experience the next time that one goes to the theatre, thanks to some deeply philosophical but intelligibly conveyed ideas.

The suggestion that we have somehow to bridge and inevitable dichotomy, both believing in something that is happening on stage while simultaneously knowing that it is something happening on stage is the starting point. This leads to the concept of the mask as a means of both hiding and elucidating the feelings of actors and characters that they play.

For Sir Peter, physical masks are only a starting point since, in his view, it is also possible to create virtual masks, for example by acting.

These masks change perceptions in many positive ways but, according to our guide, probably the most important is that they encourage restraint, the facet that he regards as essential if actors are to convince and win over their audience.

In his second lecture, the former artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (not to mention the National Theatre) lays out his theories about playing Shakespeare. In particular, he emphasises the need to listen to the text.

He firmly believes that everything necessary for an actor to perform is encoded into the writing, with the verse giving signs about how to speak, move and even breathe. To demonstrate this, he analyses a few short lines from the start of Twelfth Night showing their hidden eloquence.

In addition to the verse, he also insightfully explores the form and settings for plays in Shakespeare's time and the way in which audiences react to and interact with the players.

The parallels between Mozart and the theatre may not seem obvious but the third lecture brings them together, comparing the great composer with Chekhov and Ibsen.

Finally, we move up to date. Sir Peter Hall is almost certainly the greatest living expert on the direction and performance of plays by Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. He selects the start of two early works, Waiting for Godot and The Homecoming, and delivers a masterclass in textual analysis.

From there he moves on to some thoughts about how desperate is the need for Theatre in today's society. This leads to a plea to politicians to recognise its value, which is even more timely following the recent announcement of such swathing cuts to the Arts Council's budget.

Exposed by the Mask is quite a short book but is filled with wisdom and would make a perfect gift for anybody interested in theatre, whether as a practitioner or spectator.

Philip Fisher

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©Peter Lathan 2010