Theatre in Wales

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A Great Director Who Left Our Theatre Infinitely Richer Than He Found It

In Memory

Terry Hands , Theatre of Wales and England , February 6, 2020
In Memory by Terry Hands A few years back, in the bar area of Aberystwyth Arts Centre, two old friends were reminiscing about theatre they had seen in their younger days. They travelled across some Shakespeare productions and came to “Henry V.”

Their enthusiasm brimmed over. The manifest sense of thrill, engendered by the vividness of memory, suggested that they might have seen it just the week before.

Not so. Alan Howard had been in the lead and played the role in Stratford-upon-Avon, London and across a lot of the world. This was in the first half of the 1970s and remembered vividly by two among the many who had seen it forty years on in Aberystwyth. So much for the ephemerality of theatre. Terry Hands was at the helm of that production. The two veterans who remembered it were right. It was a surgingly thrilling experience and I too had been there.

That London is a collection of villages is an old cliché. I lived in the Hammersmith-Shepherd's Bush axis, at the time a remarkable performance hub. The Lyric had re-opened, Peter Gill had breathed vital life into the Riverside Studios and Mike Alfreds was at the Bush. The Barbican was a long way off, posh and famously confusing to get into and around, and I did not have great interest in the classics. I had no knowledge of directors- did not even know what they did- but I did know playwrights. When Terry Hands directed a musical about Britain and the Opium Wars in China I trekked to the Barbican.

It was another production to thrill. Hands was director for “Poppy” and Peter Nicholls was author. It went on to win the Olivier that year for Best Musical.

The public obituaries have touched lightly on the years in Wales. The claim is made that the theatre would have closed without him. It became the best theatre in Wales. In 2019 it was in co-production with the National Theatre of Great Britain and won an Olivier. The founding of the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool is acknowledged but most attention in the obituaries went to the Royal Shakespeare Company. It is unsurprising as his tenure lasted 25 years, his Henry VI winning the Olivier in 1978 for Best Director.

In truth few London critics made the trip to Mold. But there is always an exception. John Peter, a learned critic now of another era, was regularly there. The archive at the Times holds a record that is comprised of superlatives.

John Peter at “Troilus and Cressida” 27th February 2005:

“Terry Hands’ production has a dark and brutal magnificence. Superb expressionistic lighting by Hands himself.”

Peter was at “Macbeth” 18th May 2008 to see Owen Teale and Vivian Parry as murderous husband and wife:

“Hell is murky and Terry Hands’ magnificent production is defined by the interplay of light and darkness.”

Before his retirement Peter was at “Maria Stuart” 17th May 2009:

“Terry Hands’ unfeasibly exciting production…sets bare-knuckle rhetoric racing across the stage.”

For the last review in the Sunday Times archive Peter was at “Pygmalion” that same year 18th October 2009:

“Hard-hitting, sophisticated and funny, Terry Hands’ production of one of Shaw’s most revolutionary plays is like a jewel with a cutting edge.”

For the final production the critic Alfred Hickling headed his review with:

“Dazzling swansong for Terry Hands. The outgoing artistic director of Theatr Clywd bows out with a tragedy powered by an overwhelming momentum.”

The review read: “Hands has delivered a Hamlet that is quite dazzling in every respect. A brilliantly creative lighting designer who always illuminates his own productions, Hands renders the contrast between the gloom of the battlements and the gleam of the court so great as to be momentarily blinding.”

Michael Billington has condensed his own tribute:

“Terry worked a lot in continental Europe and, after leaving the RSC, turned Theatr Clwyd into the most successful theatre in Wales, even managing to attract Nicol Williamson out of semi-retirement to play King Lear.

“What struck me most about Terry, however, was his passion for Shakespeare’s language, his ability to draw the best out of actors and his love of ritual...Terry Hands was a great director who left our theatre infinitely richer than he found it.”

Theatre is for audience. Last words then to those who were there to see the productions:

“Terry Hands and his team have worked miracles at Clwyd Theatr Cymru, and turned it into - in effect - Wales's national theatre.”

“Credit should also go to Flintshire County Council who inherited the theatre when Clwyd County Council was abolished twenty years ago. What must be quite a burden for them in financial matters has proved a great benefit in cultural terms for the county and well beyond.”

“Hands' tenure at Theatr Clwyd has been superb. productions have been bold, adventurous and thought-provoking and he's inspired some magnificent acting. Let's celebrate what's been achieved”

“Terry Hands has been simply outstanding.”

“Terry Hands - a magnificent and deeply appreciated job for theatre in Wales. Brilliant stuff, truly.”

Picture credit: Cambridge Jones

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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