Terry Hands, director known for hits and 'Carrie,' dies at 79

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Terry Hands, director known for hits and 'Carrie,' dies at 79
Kelsey Grammer and Diane Venora, as Lady Macbeth, in the blunt-witted production of "Macbeth" under the direction of Terry Hands. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Terry Hands, a British director who led the Royal Shakespeare Company in England and in the 1980s took several productions to Broadway, including a well-regarded “Much Ado About Nothing” and the notorious musical flop “Carrie,” died Tuesday. He was 79.

Theatr Clwyd in Wales, where he was artistic director for 18 years, retiring after directing a final “Hamlet” in 2015, posted news of his death. The location and cause were not given.

Hands was with the Royal Shakespeare Company for almost a quarter-century, joining it in 1966 to run Theatregoround, an outreach program. In 1978 he became joint artistic director with Trevor Nunn, and from 1986 until his departure in 1990 he was the company’s chief executive.

One highlight of his tenure there was his work with actor Alan Howard, whom he directed in an ambitious staging of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part 1,” “Henry IV, Part 2” and “Henry V” at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1975, with Howard starting out as Prince Hal in the first play in the cycle and growing into the title character in “Henry V.”

Another noteworthy pairing came in the 1980s when Hands directed Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” and Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack starred in both, as Cyrano and Roxane in the first and as Benedick and Beatrice in the second. Hands moved both productions to Broadway in 1984, running them in repertory.

“A few wrong notes and ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ could become this year’s Mel Brooks parody,” Frank Rich wrote in his review in The New York Times. “But Mr. Hands has perfect pitch. This director’s virtuosity is as impressive as his star’s.”

As for “Much Ado,” Rich called it “an iridescent reverie, as delicate as the wind chimes that shimmer in Nigel Hess’ exceptionally beautiful score.”

“Cyrano” earned three Tony Award nominations and “Much Ado” seven, with Jacobi’s Benedick winning him the best-actor prize. Hands was nominated for best director for that production, and his lighting design for each production — he often did his own — was also nominated.

“Doing this in America is obviously a gamble,” he told The Times in 1984 when the two plays were about to open. “Pleasing people in New York is not easy, and Broadway is a sudden-death street.”

He received confirmation of that in the most brutal of ways in 1988, when his production of “Carrie,” a musical based on Stephen King’s horror novel about a high school girl with telekinetic power, traveled to Broadway.

With music by Michael Gore, lyrics by Dean Pitchford and a book by Lawrence D. Cohen, the show had had a rocky start at Stratford-upon-Avon, but Hands, who directed, took it to New York anyway. Critics were unkind, to say the least. Rich, singling out a scene involving the slaughter of a pig, invoked another famous Broadway flop.

“Only the absence of antlers separates the pig murders of ‘Carrie’ from the ‘Moose Murders’ of Broadway lore,” he wrote in his review.

“Carrie” closed three days after it opened and has been something of a theatrical reference point — and not in a good way — ever since. Hands, though, who during his Royal Shakespeare tenure had pushed to expand that company beyond its comfort zone, had known that failure was a possibility and had embraced the challenge.

“You can’t deny that any show that begins with menstruation in the high school shower and ends with a double murder is obviously taking a risk,” he told The Times a few months earlier. “But that’s the attraction, too.”

Terence David Hands was born Jan. 9, 1941, in Aldershot, England, southwest of London, to Joseph and Luise (Kohler) Hands. He attended the University of Birmingham and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, graduating in 1964 and becoming a founder of the Everyman Theater in Liverpool.

His time at the Royal Shakespeare Company was punctuated by battles over public financing that ultimately wore him down.

“I’m haunted by the specter of endless revivals of ‘Peter Pan’ to pay for endless revivals of ‘Peter Pan,’ ” he told The Associated Press in 1990 shortly before he left, referring to the J.M. Barrie play that has been a Christmas perennial.

He expressed the hope that his successor would escape the burden of “having to spend three-quarters of the day raising, saving or making money.”

After leaving the Royal Shakespeare he worked as a freelance director until 1997, when he responded to a call from Theatr Clwyd, in northeastern Wales, which was on the verge of closing. He became its artistic director, bringing some stability to the finances and building a supportive audience.

“He saved the theater from closure — this is actual truth, not hyperbole — and protected it from ongoing public funding cuts,” Tamara Harvey, the theater’s current artistic director, said in a statement.

Hands’ marriages to Josephine Barstow in the 1960s and Ludmila Mikaël in the 1970s ended in divorce. In 2002 he married Emma Lucia, a director, who survives him, along with a daughter from his second marriage, the actress Marina Hands; and two sons, Sebastian and Rupert, from a relationship with Julia Lintott.

In 2015, as he was directing his final production for Theatr Clwyd, The Daily Post of North Wales asked him to name the highlights of his tenure there.

“Maybe one highlight is last year we played to over 200,000 people,” he said, “which, for a small theater up a hill surrounded by sheep, is an achievement.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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