THEATRE / Hands across the water

Former RSC director Terry Hands is heading for Europe. Georgina Brown w atches the brain drain in action
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The Independent Culture
What becomes of former chiefs of theatrical powerhouses? Olivier was probably too old and possibly too rich to worry where his career was going when he was pushed out of the National; France offered Peter Brook carte blanche to do his dramatic exp lorations; a couple of superb shows have come off Peter Hall's production line; Trevor Nunn has had some huge freelance hits (Sunset Boulevard and Arcadia among them). It's a question that no doubt daily exercises the mind of Richard Eyre, not least when he bumps into Terry Hands at the National, where he has been invited to direct The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Hands gets mushy when he recalls the "big family" that was the RSC - he joined as a director in 1966 and stayed for 25 years, becoming chief executive in 1986. "I knew 700 names," he says. He can't switch off from it entirely; he still keeps an eye on audience figures, though he no longer sees every show in the rep. "Now that I'm old, I can pick and choose," he smiles. There may be little of the elder statesman in the student scruffiness of his cords and shrunken jersey in directors' standar d-issue black, but Hands was 54 last week and looks every day of it.

It's taken him three years to discover he's not a freelance "by temperament". He enjoys the travel, which is fortunate since thus far he's done opera in Bremen, plays in Switzerland, Berlin and in a big top (Peter Brook-style, with animals and acrobats) in Germany; he's also done Hamlet - translated by himself - in Paris. Next he's off to Brussels, then Norway. He doesn't miss "wandering round the country with a begging bowl or being cannon fodder to sell newspapers". (Hands's jibing at the media is nowa reflex and he's not teasing when, apropos of nothing, he asks, "Why did you choose journalism? You were obviously a nice person once.") But he admits that, "like a yachtsman, you miss the occasional squall". What he truly misses is the matchmaking, putting a Deborah Warner with a Fiona Shaw, watching actors develop, then finding them the right part.

His role as RSC emeritus director means he has the chance to do this occasionally (his Tamburlaine with Tony Sher was a spectacular case in point). Like a grandparent, he will swoop in for a visit and swoop out, leaving others to exercise discipline and clean up. "Being a grand-daddy is a good feeling," he says a trifle sentimentally. At home, meanwhile, he is playing the parental role more vigorously than ever - he has a five-year-old and a post-RSC two-year-old. ("I had to replace it with something".)

As he rehearses the options for the next few years, however, his desire for a Peter Brookish space to call his own, complete with an indigenous group of actors, seems increasingly urgent. And it won't be over here. "In England," observes Hands, "this is,at best, a time of consolidation, at worst, survival. It's not a time for expansion or experiment. We've reached a point where the idea of developing taste, as opposed to satisfying taste, is being met by the funders with resentment. The big theatres should give people what they need as well as what they want."

Like Brook, Hands appears - he won't confirm it yet - to have chosen Paris, where there is clearly an appetite for his actor-centred, "two planks and a passion" approach to theatre. He loves "French vision", the way they flatten a vast area to create vistas for a new building, the absence of petty chauvinism that enables them to invite an Ameri- can-Japanese to design a glass pyramid in the gardens of the Louvre. "When you work as a foreigner you are aware of working in a culture that cares about the Arts, as well as how to eat, how to travel and what it is proper to have in Paris."

What London needs, says Hands, is a mayor like Jacques Chirac, who is "passionate about Paris" and makes the arts and business worlds work together for the sake of the city. Hands once went to see Chirac to ask for help to get Hamlet off the ground and he left with £150,000.

Right now, though, Hands is in clover, albeit temporarily. He has surrounded himself with ex-RSC actors, some of whom were in his original production of The Merry Wives which he staged at Stratford in 1968. Even so, it's a bizarre choice of play - particularly when the memory lingers of Bill Alexander's glorious Fifties satire (programmed by Hands in 1986) - which came about because Hands wanted to do a comedy following a run of projects about serial-killing psychotics and destruction and Eyre wanted something bustling to fill the stage of the Olivier.

And Hands rates the play, written at the same time as Hamlet, for its "high quality prose writing", and for being overtly about England. "It's sort of 17th-century Ambridge. It's all about the emerging middle class." He won't be taking the obvious approach (Di and Fergie as Windsor wives with Ford striking oil in Windsor Great Park). "That would be a one-off," he says, and you sense for a moment the commitment of one who once said that "directing Shakespeare is a vocation".

There's something else about Shakespeare that keeps him at it. "It's always a wonderful adventure that leads to a kind of failure because you can only get some 20 or 30 per cent of it on to the stage. And that's not false modesty. It's the truth."

Since Hands has directed more professional Shakespeare than any other British director, he knows what he is talking about. Which is why it's a pity he is slipping down the artistic brain drain. He claims he doesn't feel sorry for himself. "I don't think it's a bad thing for me to go. It's a natural progression. England is very well supplied. When Peter Brook went to Paris it was, in a way, a good thing because it left room for me and Trevor [Nunn]. And because I'm part of the theatre world, wherever theatre is going on, I'll always feel at home."

n See listings below for performance details of `The Merry Wives'

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