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Finding Rosalind in the family

Sir Peter Hall directs daughter in a touring 'As You Like It'

BATH, England -- British stage titan Peter Hall founded the Royal Shakespeare Company and led the National Theatre for 15 years. He's enjoyed a 50-year career in theater and opera; this is the man who directed the first production in English of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" and was artistic director of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera in the '80s. Along the way, he has mounted most of Shakespeare's plays more than once.

But he never directed "As You Like It" until this year.

"One of the early plays we did when I created the RSC was `As You Like It,' with Vanessa Redgrave in the role of Rosalind, in 1961," Sir Peter explained backstage at the Theatre Royal Bath last summer, between rehearsals for "As You Like It." The production, which premiered in Bath, comes to the Wilbur Theatre this week.

"Michael Elliot, who sadly is no longer with us, directed it," Hall continued. "But Vanessa was so absolutely amazing that I've never found anybody or encountered anybody that I thought could possibly challenge her memory.

"Until, that is, I encountered the actress Rebecca Hall."

Sir Peter prefers to refer to his 21-year-old daughter as an actress "because we don't work as father and daughter at all," he said, digging into a takeout lunch of sushi.

Director and actress first worked together when she was 8.

"I was sitting around waiting for my dad to finish auditions for a five-part series based on Mary Wesley's book `The Camomile Lawn,' " Rebecca Hall recalled in a separate interview. "And they said, `We would really like to audition you.' He was uneasy about it. But I did it, and I think I knew that I was eventually going to be an actress, but not just then."

According to her father, "She was quite remarkable and stole [the play]. She was inundated with film and television offers. And I sat her down and said to her, `You want to be an actress. But I think the most valuable thing you can have, if you want to be an actress, is a childhood.' "

She proceeded to do just that, going on to Cambridge University (to read English, as the British say, and do dramatics). She left before graduating, she says, because she was ready to get out in the world.

She was auditioning for parts when her father handed her a copy of George Bernard Shaw's "Mrs. Warren's Profession" and asked if she wanted to do it with him in the West End.

"And I said, `No, Dad, that's absolutely ridiculous,' " she recalled. " `I'm not doing my first job with my father!' "

She repeated the vow to herself for approximately a month. "And then I thought, actually, it would be smart to do that," she said. "Because the comparisons are always going to be made. I can't carry on my life pretending I'm not Peter Hall's daughter."

She is also the daughter of soprano Maria Ewing, but she hasn't chosen music as a career. Her choice seems to have been a good one: She garnered more accolades in her West End debut as Vivie in the Shaw play than some actors receive in a lifetime. She was even named best newcomer in the 2003 Ian Charleson Awards for classical actors under 30, her father pointed out with unabashed paternal pride, adding: "That means she is being welcomed into the profession by her peers."

"Yes, it was a success -- thank God!" said the actress, laughing heartily. "I mean, actors get their breaks wherever. It just so happens that I've met the guy who's going to give me a break. And you know, a break's a break. You've got to justify it once you have it."

Like her half-brother Edward Hall (the critically acclaimed director whose all-male "A Midsummer Night's Dream" ran in the West End this summer while his "Edmond," starring Kenneth Branagh, was running at the National Theatre), Rebecca Hall suspects that well-known artists' offspring are actually subject to more scrutiny than their peers.

"As quickly as doors open, they shut harder," she said.

Rosalind is one of Shakespeare's richest female roles, and few actresses get the opportunity to play her early in their careers, when they are close to her age, she observed. "When I read the play, I feel as if I know her very well. She's tall and lanky, and tomboyish in an attractive way," said the actress, who is 5-foot-10. "We have a lot in common, actually. She's probably more headstrong than I am. She's probably more quick."

British critics and journalists generally applauded the production and her performance. "I have seen some extraordinary Rosalinds in my time, including Vanessa Redgrave," Michael Billington wrote in The Guardian, noting that Hall "brings out a quality I have never detected in the character before: a profound sadness, as if her inability to declare her love was a source of spiritual frustration." Actor Philip Voss, an acclaimed Shakespearean and a Hall favorite who plays the philosophical courtier Jaques in "As You Like It," offered his perspective: "Peter has generally gone for a rough production" of the play, which is frequently rendered as a young lovers' romp in the romantic Forest of Arden. In this version, for example, Jaques speaks the famous monologue beginning "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players" with the biting cynicism Shakespeare intended, Voss said.

The director agreed that this was his own interpretation: "In addition to being a sunny comedy about growing up and falling in love, the play also has a very, very, very dark side. It's usually cut to hell. We haven't cut any of the dark bits.

"It is also a beautiful play that contains nuggets of some of the finest, wittiest, funniest, most heartbreaking writing in the English language."

Maureen Dezell can be reached at dezell@globe.com.

The Huntington Theatre Company and Broadway in Boston present ``As You Like It'' at the Wilbur Theatre Nov. 12 through Dec. 21. For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 617-931-2787 or the Huntington at 617-266-0800, or visit www.huntingtontheatre.org or www.broadwayinboston.com.

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