It's somehow fitting that Rachel O'Riordan's swansong as artistic head of Perth Theatre is Cinderella. Here, after all, is an age-old tale of how a young woman went to the ball as a stranger before leaving all about her dazzled before she disappears. So it has been with O'Riordan's three-year tenure in Perth, which has seen the Cork-born director arrive in Scotland as an unknown quantity and pretty much revitalise one of the country's oldest producing houses with some bold programming and even bolder results that have increased audiences, drawn critical praise and won awards.
For her final production, O'Riordan persuaded playwright Alan McHugh to re-jig his original script so that the action now takes place in a theatre rather than the stately home of his original. Coming on the eve of the theatre going dark for two years as it commences a fourteen million pound redevelopment, this is O'Riordan's way of saying goodbye to the theatre she's called home for the last three years.
“I'm quite deliberately referencing the fact that the theatre's closing,” O'Riordan says, taking a breather from panto-land in the theatre's restaurant. “Not overtly, but it's just a little nod to how fond I am of Perth Theatre, and of theatre in general and all the people who work in it. It's a little piece of self-referencing meta-theatre to go out with. I didn't know I was leaving when we decided to do that. It was more about the theatre closing, and trying to remind the audience how important this theatre is.”
The announcement of O'Riordan's imminent departure from Perth to take the helm of the Sherman Cymru theatre in Cardiff in February 2014 may have been good news for Wales, but, on the eve of the theatre's closure, for Perth it looked like the fairytale was over. This was especially the case when it was announced just a week later that Jacqueline McKay, chief executive of Horsecross Arts, the body in charge of both Perth Theatre and Perth Concert Hall, had suddenly stepped down from her post for reasons which have yet to be made clear. Anyone of a superstitious persuasion might suspect that the curse of Macbeth, which O'Riordan had just directed, had fated such a turn of events. As O'Riordan points out, however, the the two announcements were unconnected, and their close proximity was an unfortunate coincidence.
“Genuinely,” she says, “the two announcements weren't connected in any way. I was approached for the Sherman job. I wasn't looking, and had no desire to leave, but the Sherman approached me a while ago. The process of these things takes so long, so it wasn't as if it happened overnight.
“I had it in my head when I arrived here that I would be in Perth for five years, and saw it very much being a step on a journey. While Perth Theatre being closed is a very exciting time, I do need some kind of stage to do my work, and when the Sherman approached me, it felt like the right thing to do.
“Leaving Scotland now, however, is a tough one for me, because I felt I'd just found my groove. I love it here, and I've had three of the best years of my theatrical life here. I feel like I've made friends and connections with people in Scottish theatre who I want to work with in Wales. The first co-production I did here was doing [Conor McPherson's play] The Seafarer with the Lyric in Belfast, so that was me bringing all my Northern Irish connections to Scotland, and now I'm taking those with me to Wales along with all my Scottish connections, and hopefully do co-productions between the nations that way. I like the vibe here. There's a real sense of socialism about the way people work, and we showed with The Seafarer that you can co-produce with theatres from different countries involved.”
If there is a restlessness at play in O'Riordan's dynamic artistic sensibility, while leaving Perth will be a wrench, the prospect of taking over the biggest producing house in Wales is one she clearly relishes.
“I'm cursed with ambition,” she says.
This has shown in her work at Perth, from her opening production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in 2011 through to a look at Frank McGuinness' play, Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, her award-winning production of The Seafarer and this year's mystical and very male take on Macbeth. Ask what she's most proud of during her time in Perth, however, and, rather than single out any particular show, O'Riordan answers “My team. They are by far and away the best team I've ever worked with. The reason I've made good work here is because I've had that kind of support. And that's hard to leave, even though I hope I'm leaving on a high.”
O'Riordan is full of praise too for Jane Spiers, the then chief executive of Horsecross who took a chance on hiring someone outwith the immediate Scottish scene. Any advertisements for O'Riordan's replacement won't be placed until a new chief executive for Horsecross is in place. While she is clearly a tough act to follow, one only hopes whoever makes the new appointment will apply the same sense of vision as Spiers did when appointing O'Riordan.
O'Riordan seems genuinely sad to be leaving Perth, and her conversation is tinged with emotion. One suspects, however, that this won't be the last that Scotland's theatre scene sees of her work. She was due to direct something at the Tron, who co-produced Macbeth with Perth, but the move to Cardiff has put the kibosh on that. She also has a big project in the pipeline, which she can't talk about, not even to say whether it's taking place in Scotland or not.
Whatever happens next, both for Perth and O'Riordan, it is clear that she has left her mark as a crucial player in Scotland's theatrical landscape.
“I've worked very hard,” O'Riordan says. “For the last three years this theatre has been my life. If I have achieved any kind of legacy here, that's for other people to decide. The way I work is all or nothing, which makes it sound like it was all about labour, but there was an awful lot of love as well. I hope I've brought a bit of rock and roll to Perth, and I hope whoever the next director of theatre is here can bring something new to the table, and make Perth Theatre even more special than it already is.”
Cinderella, Perth Theatre, December 6th-January 4th 2014.
Rachel O'Riordan – A life onstage
Rachel O'Riordan was born in Cork, Eire, and trained as a ballet dancer before studying English and theatre. She then did a PhD entitled Shakespeare's Physical Texts.
O'Riordan worked as a choreographer and movement director, before co-founding the Belfast-based Ransom theatre company in 2002 to direct Richard Dormer's play, Hurricane, in which Dormer played snooker legend, Alex Higgins. The play was a hit in Edinburgh, London and New York, and led to O'Riordan directing a season for the Peter Hall Company, with whom she directed productions of Miss Julie and Animal Farm.
With Ransom, O'Riordan commissioned assorted new plays, and, working closely with Paines Plough and Soho Theatre, ran Writers on the Edge, a three year programme to develop women writers in Northern Ireland.
In her first season as Horsecross' director of theatre at Perth Theatre in 2011, O'Riordan directed Twelfth Night, Someone Who'll Watch Over Me and Ron Hutchinson's Hollywood romp, Moonlight and Magnolias.
In her 2012/2013 season, O'Riordan directed the female version of Neil Simon's The Odd couple, Mother Goose and Conor McPherson's The Seafarer, the latter a co-production with the Lyric, Belfast which won two Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland.
This season saw O'Riordan direct Macbeth in co-production with the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, ending her tenure with Cinderella, which opens this week.
In February 2014 O'Riordan will take up her post as artistic director of the Sherman Cymru in Cardiff.
The Herald, December 3rd 2013