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Rachel O'Riordan - Perth Theatre

Rachel O' Riordan may have only taken up her post as creative director
for theatre of Horsecross Arts at Perth Theatre two months ago, but,
swishing into the building's foyer on a Thursday afternoon, she already
looks like she owns the place. Indeed, as O'Riordan announces details
of her first season at the venue, as well she might. Because, with this
dynamic thirty-something Northern Irish woman at the helm, what is
regarded as one of Scotland's more traditionally minded theatres might
just about to undergo a very quiet revolution.

Not that O'Riordan doesn't have a commercial track record, even if her
best known works with Ransom, the company she co-founded to produce her
actor husband Richard Dormer's play about snooker player Alex Higgins,
Hurricane, and the decidedly odd The Gentleman's Tea Drinking Society,
are studio pieces. One should bear in mind too, however, that while
Hurricane began life in an eighty-seat venue before becoming an
Edinburgh Festival Fringe smash hit, Ransom's recent remount of the
show played at Belfast Opera House to 1200 people a night. O'Riordan
has also directed at the Lyric in Belfast, and the Theatre Royal in
Bath. For the last two months, however, O'Riordan has been keeping a
very low profile.

“I've been living like some cloistered nun until the season finished,”
she gushes, able at last to meet and greet the media. “But it's a big
appointment for Horsecross. This is the first time there's been a full
time artistic director for many years, and I'm starting a journey here.
I'm not saying Perth will ever be the right place to do The Gentlemen's
Tea-Drinking Society, but we are building a new studio, where we'll be
working with younger artist to do work of that kind. For me, the
important thing is that there needs to be a space to take risks in any
theatre, and we're halfway there to making that happen. I think that's
part of the reason I was appointed, to have that of vision, where I'm
comfortable in directing plays from the classic canon on the main
stage, but where I'm not scared of working with new writers and
bringing them on. I'd heard of Perth Rep, but I was more interested in
where the place is going. That's what's exciting.”

O'Riordan's opening production for her inaugural autumn season will be
Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. With Andrew Panton taking the helm of
Christmas show, Jack and The Beanstalk, February 2012 will see
O'Riordan direct Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, Frank McGuinness's
dramatisation of Brian Keenan's four year incarceration as a hostage in
Beirut, where he and fellow prisoner John McCarthy were in the main
kept blindfolded by their Islamic Jihad captors. Light relief will come
in March in the form of Moonlight and Magnolias, Ron Hutchinson's comic
reimagining of how Gone With The Wind producer David O Selznick and
director Victor Fleming brought in script doctor Ben Hecht to breathe
some life into what was shaping up to be the greatest turkey ever made.
Riordan's own appointment, however, suggests the play itself shouldn't
suffer the same fate.

While all three plays look on paper at least solidly commercial
products ripe for the sort of stylistic reinvention O'Riordan is more
than well versed in, what, one wonders, first attracted her to the
Perth job? Because, while steeped in its own colourful history, the
theatre's geographical position outwith the central belt runs the risk
of leaving ambitious incomers like O'Riordan out of the country's
creative loop. Not, it seems, if O'Riordan has her way.

“I'm all about partnershops,” she says, “both in this role and in
Ransom. We co-produced with big players like Paines Plough and Soho
Theatre, and I'm confident we can bring that co-producing ethos here,
both with companies in Scotland and beyond. I'm already having talks
with the Lyric, Belfast, and I would hope we can work with the likes of
the National Theatre of Scotland, or the Traverse or the Citizens or
the Tron. For the next few months I'm just going to get out there, see
as much work as possible, and meet everyone.”

Cork born O'Riordan began her career as a dancer. After training at the
Royal Ballet School, she also worked as a choreographer. These skills
were utilised on the physically driven Hurricane, which was,
remarkably, the first professional stage play she she'd ever directed.
As calling cards go, it was pretty spectacular. During the production's
London run, word of mouth attracted no less a personage than Sir Peter
Hall to see what all the fuss was about. Hall wrote to O'Riordan, and
offered her Miss Julie, with Andrea Riseborough playing the lead.

In the intervening eight years, O'Riordan has notched up a large and
impressive body of work, including the Glass Menagerie at the Lyric,
Belfast and Grimm Tales at Manchester's Library Theatre. She has
umpteen awards nominations, and in 2010 scooped Best Director award for
Absolution in the First Irish Theatre Awards in New York.

“For me it feels like I've been doing it forever,” O'Riordan admits,
“but looking at other people's career paths I know that's not true. I'd
never directed until I was twenty-eight or twenty-nine, so once I
started I thought I'd better crack on. But I wasn't in the system. I'd
never assistant directed or gone to Cambridge, so I suppose I just did
my own thing and made my own path. I started with instinct and took it
from there.”

As well as Hurricane and The Gentlemen's Tea-Drinking Society, other
work by O'Riordan seen in Scotland includes Protestants, and the Irish
famine-based This Piece of Earth. More recently, O'Riordan directed
Arguments For Terrorism at Oran Mor. Ransom also appointed actor/writer
David Ireland, who has worked extensively in Scotland, as writer in
residence. While O'Riordan will step down from the helm of Ransom now
she's in Perth, she will remain on its advisory board.

“I began Ransom when I was thirty,” she says, “and I think it would be
a shame if the company closed just because I left, but there comes a
time when you have to move on and let someone else take over and put a
brand new sense of energy into it.”

This is a notion that could equally apply to O'Riordan's own arrival in
Perth. Again she points to the theatre's refurbishment as a bold new
start for the theatre. What, though, does O'Riordan think the regular
Perth audience will make of her?

“That's the big question,” she says, “but in a way it doesn't matter
what they think of me. What matters is what they think of what I make.
My ambition is to make friends with the audience in a robust way where
you can have a laugh with them, but you can also tell each other the
truth. That's the kind of relationship I want here, and the first
season is a step towards that. I don't ever think I know better than my
audience. I'm passionate about the relationship between an actor and an
audience. That dynamic never stops fascinating me, and if I'm not
masking that bridge, then I'm not doing my job probably. It can't just
be about my artistic vision. The audience has to trust you, but just as
importantly, we have to trust our audience.”

More details of Perth Theatre's 2011/12 season will be announced
shortly. Twelfth Night runs from September 28th-October 15th.

The Herald, April 5th 2011



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