Theatre director

Born: January 9, 1941;

Died: February 4, 2020.

TERRY Hands, who has died aged 79, was a theatre director whose masterly interpretations of Shakespeare helped define their era. He also led three major theatrical institutions that changed the map of British theatre. From Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre, which Hands co-founded, through to the Royal Shakespeare Company and Theatr Clwyd, Mold, Hands brought classics to life over half a century, investing a baroque richness into the material.

If Hands sometimes didn’t get as much high-profile attention as his contemporaries, his productions made waves nevertheless. This was the case when he directed Alan Howard as assorted monarchs in Shakespeare’s seven-hour history cycle, cast Anthony Sher in the title roles of Richard III and Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, and won best director awards, both for the latter and his production of Cyrano de Bergerac starring Derek Jacobi as Cyrano and Sinead Cusack as Roxane.

The pair appeared as Beatrice and Benedick in Much ado About Nothing, with both of Hands’ productions running in rep on Broadway in 1984. Often lighting his own shows, Hands was noted for uncluttered and deceptively simple stagings that put the focus on the actors, allowing them to shine in every way.

Terence David Hands was born in Aldershot to Luise and Joseph Hands, and went to Woking Grammar School before studying English at the University of Birmingham. While in Birmingham, Hands joined the Guild Theatre Group. Despite his original plans for a career in literary research, Hands went on to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. It was here he began directing, and he won the gold medal for acting in 1964.

The same year, Hands married opera singer Josephine Barstow, and landed in bohemian Liverpool, where, with Martin Jenkins, Pete James and Michael Freeman, he co-founded the Everyman Theatre. This was located in Hope Hall, a former chapel turned Liverpool boho hang-out. Hands fell into directing out of necessity as there was no-one else there to do it, and in its first year, the Everyman hosted productions of Shakespeare, Ibsen and Harold Pinter’s play, The Caretaker.

It was a production of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral that put both Hands and the Everyman on the map, and, in 1966, Peter Hall drafted him into the RSC to run the company’s touring group, Theatreground. He was made an associate director in 1967, making his debut overseeing a Cuban play called the Criminals.

The following year Hands had his first big success directing The Merry Wives of Windsor. Productions of numerous Shakespeares and other classics followed, with Hands’ production of Much Ado About Nothing transferring to Broadway. More contemporary fare came in The Bewitched, by Peter Barnes, and, later, Singer, by Peter Flannery, about a Rachmanesque slum landlord.

With his first marriage having ended after three years, in 1974, Hands married French actress Ludmila Mikael, with whom he had a daughter. Hands later lived with actress Susan Fleetwood, then with actress Julia Lintott, with whom he had two sons.

Outside of the UK, in 1972 he oversaw an award-winning Richard III at the Comedie-Francaise in Paris, and directed Placido Domingo in Verdi’s Otello at the Paris Opera in 1976. For the Royal Opera House in London, Hands directed Parsifal in 1979. Both operas featured George Solti conducting.

From 1978 to 1986, Hands was joint artistic director of the RSC alongside Trevor Nunn, winning an Olivier award for his production of Henry IV and presenting the UK premiere of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. He took up the reins of the RSC single-handed in 1986, also becoming the company’s chief executive.

These were the Thatcher years, and Hands was up against swingeing funding cuts. With Nunn’s epic production of Les Miserables having become a commercial hit, Hands attempted something similar with a musical staging of Carrie. Stephen King’s horror novel about a young woman gifted with the power of telekinesis had already been made into a successful film. After a troubled Stratford run, Hands took his production to Broadway, where it duly bombed, closing after a handful of performances.

While Hands continued his relationship with the RSC after stepping down as artistic director in 1991, he directed The Merry Wives of Windsor with the National Theatre, and revived Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest for Birmingham Rep. Much later, on Broadway, Hands directed Kelsey Grammer in a short-lived Macbeth in 2000.

In 1997, Hands wasn’t so much head-hunted by Theatr Clwyd in Mold, North Wales, as sent an SOS. The theatre was genuinely on the verge of closure, and Hands again battled against funding cuts, this time due to local government reorganisation. Rising to the challenge, he reinvigorated the company with productions including a King Lear starring Nicol Williamson. Having married again in 2002 to director Emma Lucia, more Shakespeares followed, including a swan-song Hamlet in 2015 prior to retirement after a fifty-year career that saw British theatre transformed by Hands’ presence.

Hands is survived by his wife Emma Lucia, his daughter Marina, from his second marriage to Ludmila Mikael, and two sons, Sebastian and Rupert, to Julia Lintott.