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Lyric Hammersmith’s Rachel O’Riordan: ‘I haven’t taken a traditional route that’s for sure’

Rachel O’Riordan in rehearsals for A Doll's House. Photo: Helen Maybanks Rachel O’Riordan in rehearsals for A Doll's House. Photo: Helen Maybanks

As she makes her directorial debut as artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith, Rachel O’Riordan talks to  Sam Marlowe about her unorthodox path into the theatre industry, being an artistic leader in all four countries of  the UK, and why kicking off her season with Tanika Gupta’s A Doll’s House is a statement of intent for her tenure

In UK theatre terms, Rachel O’Riordan is unique. At 45, she has been an artistic leader in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and now – as the artistic director of London’s Lyric Hammersmith – in England. It’s an achievement that gives her valuable breadth of vision. A refreshingly square peg in an industry that often seems riddled with round holes, O’Riordan followed an unorthodox route that bears no resemblance to that time-honoured career template for emerging directors of the Oxbridge degree followed by a string of assisting gigs. 

“It’s funny, isn’t it?” she smiles, her accent part Celtic musicality, part flattened northern English vowels – a legacy, perhaps, of a childhood stint in Leeds – with just a dash of London attitude. “It’s not a traditional route to being a London AD, that’s for sure. It’s like a tour of the UK. It is only me that’s done that. I have a real sense of what’s going on across the country, I have friends and colleagues that I love and admire from beyond the London scene, as well as connections with what’s going on here. That’s really useful, because theatre itself needs to think differently.”

Much lip service is paid to the idea of acknowledging creativity beyond the M25, but right from the start, when she set up her own small Belfast-based company Ransom, O’Riordan has walked the walk. She went on to run Perth Theatre in Scotland, and revitalise the Sherman in Wales.

Getting to know the audience

As well as a broad view of the nation’s theatre, her journey has instilled an intense dislike of dismissive or patronising talk of ‘the regions’.

“I hate that term,” she says. “I don’t use it. I ran a theatre in the capital of a country, Wales, in Cardiff. I ran a theatre company in the capital of Northern Ireland, in Belfast. There’s nothing ‘regional’ about it. Scotland is not a region. I feel very passionately about the strength of identity in those places, and the work that goes on there. I think I’ll always be informed as an artist, and as who I am, by experiences I’ve had in places outside here. I can’t not be. I’m Irish. But it’s properly exciting to be in London now, in the epicentre of theatre in Europe. There are some extraordinary people living and working here.”

 Getting to know the people who come to the Lyric is top of O’Riordan’s agenda in her new job. “All audiences are distinctive. Finding out who your audience is, that is the most important thing,” she declares. “You can’t prejudge that, or make any broad assumption. For example, Hammersmith and Fulham is a really big borough. The diversity, even taking it outside the rest of London, is hugely rich. We have a strong Indian community here, we have a strong Irish community. Hammersmith has been home to immigrants from all different places: big Polish community, big Sikh community. This is really exciting to me, to try to programme work that speaks to those people and makes them feel like this is their local theatre. I want it to feel both local and national. But still, the desire to connect with an audience that feels immediately yours as a theatre remains.” 

How, in practical terms, does she go about it? She freely admits “it’s early doors – I’m still working out how to do that here”, though for starters, she’s now living in the area. But mainly, she says, it’s about intuitive programming. Her debut season kicks off with a new version of A Doll’s House by Tanika Gupta, which resets Ibsen’s classic in colonial Calcutta. O’Riordan is directing the production and calls it a “statement of intent” for her tenure. “Tanika can write about big subjects with complete confidence and bravery. And it’s work by a woman of colour, a London playwright with Indian heritage – that feels really right for the Lyric. By choosing to programme that play, I am speaking to our British Asian audience – and everybody else, of course, because it’s possible to speak to many audiences at the same time. But it’s a gesture of trust from us to our audience. We’re saying: ‘Come talk to us, come be in this building.’”

Playwright Tanika Gupta: ‘A good play tells us something about the world we live in today’

A new play by David Greig, alongside work by Mike Bartlett and Seamus Heaney, also feature in her first season; the enticing creative roster includes Jude Christian, Tinuke Craig and Roy Alexander Weise. It looks like a balance of artistic exploration, political engagement and crowd-pleasing appeal. “We are a big theatre – the largest subsidised in London outside the National,” O’Riordan says. “We have the capacity to be really bold. We have a ticket offer at the moment with accessibly priced tickets, because we can. We have lots of seats. So we can be generous, we can be inclusive.” 

Her policy is also informed by the Lyric’s history; the handsome, 590-seat Frank Matcham-designed house was originally a music hall. “There’s something so brilliantly egalitarian about that. What does that mean now? How does that translate to 2019? It has to be bravura programming, it has to be big stories, it has to be open, warm, challenging. Big in heart and big in scale and ambition. And the intention behind the building is important: why was it built? Why is it here? What is it for?” When artists speak of inclusivity and accessibility – especially in terms of class – there’s often an presumption of rough edges, of grittiness: one thinks of Barrie Rutter, founder of the Halifax-based company Northern Broadsides, and his mission statement of touring to “non-velvet spaces”. The Lyric, on the other hand, is a splendidly velvet space, with its gilt decoration and grand proscenium. That such a theatre can be genuinely embracing is a cheering outlook, especially at a time of such political gloom, division and uncertainty.

 Simon Armstrong and Hedydd Dylan in The Cherry Orchard at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, in 2017. Photo: Mark Douet
Simon Armstrong and Hedydd Dylan in The Cherry Orchard at the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, in 2017. Photo: Mark Douet

Planning co-productions

O’Riordan is fresh from a meeting with fellow director Conor Mitchell, who she showed around her new workplace. “I brought him into the auditorium afterwards and we sat there for half an hour just talking about ideas and what we might make together. And he said: ‘God, these theatres… They take you somewhere, don’t they?’ And they do. There’s something about proscenium-arch theatres where you feel like you are walking away from the real world and into something other. Those theatres are not pretending that it’s real life in there. They’re asking you to transport yourself somewhere else. I’m interested in that transformation.”

Nurturing new and existing talent has always been a driving force in my artistic directorship style

Co-productions are very much part of O’Riordan’s plans, and she’ll be launching an ongoing collaboration with Headlong to tour substantial-scale stagings of work by a series of yet-to-be-named female playwrights. The nurturing of new and existing talent has, she says, “always been a driving force in my artistic directorship style”, and she has “no interest in being anything other than collaborative”.

It’s an approach that chimes with that of other recently appointed theatre leaders: Michelle Terry at Shakespeare’s Globe, and Lynette Linton at the Bush. But O’Riordan is reluctant to draw any comparisons or even to characterise her rehearsal room process, largely because, she points out: “I didn’t come up through the assistant director pathway, so I’ve no idea what other people’s processes are like. I’m very unusual in that, but assisting was not my thing at all. I just started making work. When I look back on it now, that seems really odd.” And courageous? “Yeah, in retrospect, 20-something Rachel going: ‘Oh, I’ll just make a show.’” She laughs.

In reality, it was more complicated, and she suffered her share of uncertainty and setbacks. O’Riordan was born in Cork, one of four children. Her father, Robert Anthony Welch, was an academic, writer and poet; her mother, Angela O’Riordan Welch, managed a Citizens’ Advice Bureau. As a child, she was shy and awkward, and she drifted into after-school ballet lessons because a friend was going. It turned out she had talent, and she won a scholarship to White Lodge, the Royal Ballet School – only to be told, at the age of 18, that she wasn’t good enough to dance professionally. Was that as punishing as it sounds? “Yes. Oh, yes, yes. But now I think: ‘Thank God.’ Because it’s a really short career, and it’s brutal – on your body and on your soul.”

Richard Dormer in Hurricane at Soho Theatre in 2004. Poto: Tristram Kenton
Richard Dormer in Hurricane at Soho Theatre in 2004. Poto: Tristram Kenton

She went back to Northern Ireland to sit her A levels, before returning to London to read English and drama at Queen Mary University. Afterwards, adrift and wondering what to do next, she took various bar and restaurant jobs, and worked occasionally as a choreographer or movement director. But the strain of surviving in the English capital took its toll. 

“London can be very difficult to crack, and I didn’t have enough money to live there. I remember thinking: ‘I just can’t do this.’ So I went back to Northern Ireland. And what was really brilliant was that in Belfast it felt like you could start to think about making your own work.” So that’s what she did – along with a PhD in Shakespeare at the University of Ulster. 

She set up Ransom, a fringe company, and in 2004 made her directorial debut with Hurricane, a highly physical monodrama about the snooker player Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins. It was a hit, touring to London, Edinburgh and eventually New York. 


Q&A Rachel O’Riordan

What was your first professional theatre job?
It was as a movement director, for the Belfast company Kabosh, on a show called Strange!, which was directed by Karl Wallace.

What was your first non-theatre job?
Bar work and waitressing; lots of it. In London and in Belfast.

What is your next job?
I’ve been here six months… So who knows?

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That networking actually happens and actually works. I had no idea. I thought if you just made the work, you would be noticed and given opportunities.

Who or what was your biggest influence?
My dad, Robert Welch. He is dead and I miss him terribly. He had the broadest intellect, and the most generous, open mind. He was a massive advocate for those who, like himself, didn’t come from privilege or money and he had a way of making people believe in themselves. Since he died, countless people have told me stories about his kindness and how he empowered them. He was as brave as anyone I’ve ever known. And a black belt in karate.

What’s your best advice for auditions?
Prepare. And remember that the director is absolutely on your side, and wants you to be successful.

If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
I think a journalist.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Literally all of them. Theatre is magical, and those superstitions in some way recognise the riskiness of what we do. There are no guarantees.

‘Younger people should take heart’

O’Riordan knew she had found her thing. “But it took a long time to get there, and I think younger people should take heart, because it isn’t always step by step by step, particularly if you’re not networked in, as I wasn’t, or if you don’t have loads of money. It can feel really impenetrable. I don’t want to sound chippy, but there’s a lot of privilege around. I do sort of like the fact that I’m here in London, in this beautiful theatre and this brilliant job, and I didn’t do it the straightforward way.”

Belfast in the early 2000s was, she says, thrillingly creative. “It wasn’t all that long after the Good Friday Agreement. Belfast wasn’t the Belfast that it is now, it was still very much a city that was healing, and getting over years and years of conflict. It was a very special time. I have huge, passionate love for that period in my life. What a gift to be learning how to be a theatre director like that. We worked out of a building called Community Arts Forum in the city centre. It was a bit rock’n’roll. And there were such great people around me – directors Conor Mitchell, Abigail McGibbon and Eibhlin de Barra, playwright Owen McCafferty. It was just kind of: ‘Ah fuck it, let’s do it.’ There was something in the air back then. And beginning your career in that kind of atmosphere – it changed everything for me.”

Sophie Melville in Iphigenia in Splott at Sherman Cymru. Photo: Mark Douet

Ransom produced David Ireland’s first play, Arguments for Terrorism, and Leo Butler’s The Early Bird. And O’Riordan’s freelancing career took her to theatres such as Hampstead, Manchester Library and Bath Theatre Royal, where she worked for the Peter Hall Company. But she started longing to run a venue – “I was in and out of buildings all the time, and I just started wanting to see the same people again, the same production team. I started wondering: what would it be like if I didn’t just come into the theatre, direct something, and then leave? What if I did something, and then did another thing? And all the energy I have, all the vision and the passion, could then be channelled more effectively.” 

Her opportunity came with the job at Perth, which she describes as “absolutely brilliant”. She says: “Making theatre in Scotland is fantastic. I adored the people, and the country itself, and the attitude towards theatremaking. It’s a robust and fantastic scene, and proud of itself in a really good way.” 

Swift education

It was also a swift education in the more hard-headed side of the artistic director role, knowledge that would become vital when, three years later, she moved to Wales to take over at the Sherman Theatre – only to see the theatre’s entire Cardiff Council grant cut before her tenure had even begun. As if that weren’t enough, the Sherman was “not in good shape – it had completely lost its direction”. So O’Riordan set out to put it back on the map, carving a new creative identity for the theatre and forging stimulating new relationships with artists – notably Gary Owen, whose plays Killology and Iphigenia in Splott had a national impact. It was a challenge – and she loved every second of it.

Sion Daniel Young in Killology. Photo: Mark Douet
Sion Daniel Young in Killology. Photo: Mark Douet

“That’s showbusiness,” she shrugs. “It was terrifying, but I learnt a lot. The difficult things in your job, you have to try to do them with honesty, and if you can, some grace. I’m so proud of the five years I had there. Legacy is very important to me, and I’m very proud of what I’ve handed on to my successor. It’s a very different theatre from the one I took on. I have a guiding principle – if I have to make a tough decision, I try to take myself out of it. It sounds obvious, but you anthropomorphise the building that you’re lucky enough to be working in, and remember it’s not about you. As an artistic director, you’re the last person it’s about.”

Given her impressive track record, it’s no surprise that some are tipping O’Riordan as a potential future chief of the National Theatre. No surprise, that is, to anyone but O’Riordan herself. “What?” she cries when I put the idea to her. “That’s the first I’ve heard of it. Are you kidding? Well, that’s really flattering.” There’s an incredulous pause. “Really? Genuinely gobsmacked. God. I can’t even…” But she’d jump at the chance – wouldn’t she? “Well, not right now,” she grins. “But yeah… Get back to me in a few years.”

CV Rachel O’Riordan

Born: 1974, Cork, Ireland
Training: None
Landmark productions:
• Hurricane, Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh (2003),  Soho Theatre (2004),  East 59th Street Theatre, New York (2004)

• The Absence of Women, Lyric Belfast/Tricycle  Theatre (2011)
• The Seafarer, Perth Theatre/ Lyric Belfast (2013)
• Iphigenia In Splott,  Sherman (2015), National Theatre (2016)
• Killology, Sherman/Royal Court (2017)
• The Cherry Orchard, Sherman Theatre (2017)
• Bird, Sherman Theatre/Manchester Royal  Exchange (2016)
• Best director award in the First Irish Theatre Festival Awards in New York for Absolution, Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh  Festival (2008)

• Best ensemble and best director at the annual Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland for The Seafarer (Perth/Lyric Belfast, 2013)
• Best new play at the UK Theatre Awards for Iphigenia in Splott (2015)
The Stage’s Regional Theatre of the Year Award for the Sherman Theatre (2018)
• The Stage’s top 100 most influential people (2018)
• Olivier award for outstanding achievement in affiliate theatre for Killology (Sherman Theatre/Royal Court, 2018)
Agent: Joe Phillips  at Curtis Brown

A Doll’s House runs at the Lyric Hammersmith from September 6 to October 5

Q&A with Lyric Hammersmith new artistic director Rachel O’Riordan: ‘I want to mix things up a bit’

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