Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Terry Hands at Theatr Clwyd

A Critical Survey

Terry Hands directed forty-one plays in Wales, of which I saw eleven. On just one occasion we spoke. At Theatre Clwyd, after a performance, I would stay a short while to gather thoughts, make a few starting notes. Sometimes I might share a few words with a cast member. Terry Hands would be at the bar. Conversation would have been superfluous. Theatre is theatre and reviewers are not there to be the mates of directors.

But in 2015 I walked into the foyer straight into the director of “Hamlet”. I said I had liked a good many of his productions. Artists of stature have no need of gush or blather.

Reviewers write what they write. His words were “Thank you for coming.” That seemed to say it all.

After the Opium War musical “Poppy” there was a good gap in my seeing a Hands production. I was at “Night Must Fall” with Lee Haven-Jones and Jenny Livsey among the cast. It was a fine production in a centenary tribute to the Flintshire-born Emlyn Williams. Three years on and my circumstances permitted the journey north once or twice a year. I saw ten of the eleven final productions, only a Rattigan being a journey too far. Critic Alfred Hickling was there to report “Joshua Richards' outstanding performance...Simon Dutton gives a bravura performance.”

There are common themes that run through the ten productions I reviewed. One is the piercing intelligence. At “Pygmalion”:

“superlative...sheer concentrated intelligence that has been applied to Shaw’s 1916 text. It is all too easy to embalm Shaw in Edwardian nostalgia, all oak panels, tweeds and tiaras. Certainly the costume design does not stint; the opulence of the satins and velvets, tweeds and herringbones is startling. But designer Mark Bailey hangs a picture of Darwin on the wall of Professor Higgins' study. The room is less the customary tightly filled space but a spare and vaguely ascetic space, brightly lit. As usual Terry Hands is his own terrific lighting designer.

“The Darwinian undertone in this commemorative year is cunningly reinforced by a little three inch bust on the desk. It is a reminder of two things; the play is about human beings adapting under stress, and that the period of its writing was equally a time of scientific and artistic turmoil. Although faithful to the text Shaw’s endless stage instructions for Act Three have been torn up. In place of the sea of Burne-Jones and William Morris the theme of modernism is written home by giving Mrs Higgins’ Chelsea flat huge art nouveau windows.”

At the last production:

“This “Hamlet” has a driving pace to it and a freshness from the opening. The battlements of Elsinore are bitter cold, reminder that the Oresund is gateway to a Baltic that freezes over at its other extremity.

“The court beneath the murky, haunted battlement is a place of uniforms and ceremonial dress in whites and creams. This courtly opulence makes all the more contrast with the design. Mark Bailey’s set, black floor and stage rear, throws up dual reflections of the characters. This is a palace thin in privacy or comfort, a place of edge and unease. It is reminder that Shakespeare wrote in full knowledge of the spy state that Walsingham had constructed. The characters hardly rest or sit.”

The quality of finish was a result of regular collaborators in design and music. At “The Taming of the Shrew”:

“Terry Hands has re-envisioned the play for the twenty-first century. Pictorially, he and designer Mark Bailey have hauled it North of the Alps from Padua and re-cast it in Brueghelesque terms. The set’s front walls have patches of broken daub exposing the wattle beneath. Dead rabbits and ducks hang from the back wall. Tankards, until goblets of gold are revealed for the wedding feast, are of pot and pewter. Servants and retainers are in cloth caps and drab colours. When reduced-to-rags Katherina at last arrives to meet Petruccio's retinue of servants they are less Brueghel than an abhorrent cluster plucked from a canvas by Bosch.

At “Boeing Boeing”:

“Terry Hands and designer Mark Bailey have created a glorious retro world of big eyelashes and lacquered hair, polo necks and swivel chairs in white moulded plastic. The three high-flying air hostesses, Eleanor Howell, Caryl Morgan and Tara Dixon, wear the tight-waisted, tight-skirted uniforms, in primary red, blue and yellow, of their respective national airlines. The flight bags that they provocatively leave around Bernard’s flat are themselves historical relics- a couple of the carriers have been Easyjetted into bankruptcy.”

Theatre comes to us via actors and the performances were richly nuanced. At “Mary Stuart”:

“Terry Hands’ direction is burnished steel. The play opens and closes with a driving drum beat. A largely unadorned stage lets the actors act. Lee Haven-Jones’ leather-clad Mortimer makes an upward curl of his lip as he unveils a conspiratorial plan. The tapping of fingers betrays the inner agitation of courtiers. When Claire Price’s Elizabeth hears mention of “women are not weak” she makes a rapid sideway movement of her head.

...Once relieved of public performance the facade of authority diminishes. There is a trembling spasm of the lip. Power is both relish and evasion. At one point she turns her back on her ministers’ argument. Claire Price’s eyes move upwards and leftwards with the glint of watchful intelligence. It is not just liberty that requires eternal vigilance but the retention of authority.”

Theatre is action. At “Arden of Faversham”:

“Stephen Marzella’s repellent Clarke, with his thick glasses, skull cap and paint-spattered robe, has a tongue that laps in lascivious anticipation of his encounter with Michelle Luther’s Susan. A gob of real spittle sits on his beard which pokes out at a horizontal angle. This caused a collective intake of breath from the audience. Hedydd Dylan’s Alice exposes the bare torso of Daniel Llewelyn-Williams’ Mosby and presses her mouth to his stomach. Blood flows freely when faces are hit.

“Brendan Charleson’s Black Will, in his wide-brimmed hat of the same colour with its dandy-ish three feathers, sticks his dagger into Steven Meo’s nostril and flexes it. He does not go as far as Roman Polanski did with Jack Nicholson in “Chinatown” but it looks painful none the less. In the same scene Dyfrig Morris has the strength to lift up the smaller Michael bodily by the collar.

“Hedydd Dylan is dressed in green velvet, with a Medusa head of jiggling ringlets and a single glittering jewel in each earlobe. The size of her eyes moves from slits to quarter-globes. She sways from the hip when she wants a conspirator to do her will. Her face has a mobility that goes from eyebrow to chin. Her voice can alter pitch in the course of a three-syllable word like “ruffian.” There are tiny touches like the anxious lick of the lips before the serving of a poisonous breakfast broth.”

Hands was his own lighting director. At “Blackthorn”:

“Terry Hands is as usual his own lighting director. In the second act he uses two dozen ceiling lights to catch wonderfully a particular spectral dewy light of Autumn. Colin Towns' wholly original music has an elusive quality, jazzy and jaunty with slight discordances.”

The production archive for the last years can be read below:

“Arden of Faversham”: 7th March 2010

“A Small Family Business”: 17th May 2010

“As You Like It”: 15th February 2012

“Blackthorn”: 22nd November 2010

“Boeing Boeing”: 29th October 2012

“Hamlet”: 11th February 2015

“Mary Stuart”: 14th May 2009

“Pygmalion”: 27th October 2009

“The Taming of the Shrew”: 14th May 2011

“Under Milk Wood”: 11th April 2014

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
08 February 2020


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