There's a big metal letter 'R' on the shelf above Rachel O'Riordan's desk in the small office from which the creative director of Perth Theatre has run things since she arrived from Northern Ireland two years ago. The sign is taken from the set of the female version of Neil Simon's play, The Odd Couple, which O'Riordan directed in its female incarnation in 2012 On the floor, a pair of O'Riordan's shoes lay messily discarded. Both features -point not just to how much O'Riordan has made Perth Theatre her home as much as a thriving artistic nerve centre, but how comfortable she feels since she started to develop an ambitious programme across her two seasons thus far.
With a major refurbishment of the theatre set to take place between 2014 and 2016, the Herald's exclusive announcement of Perth Theatre's forthcoming autumn season gives O'Riordan a chance to reflect on her previous seasons as well as look forward to the new one and beyond. While O'Riordan will open the autumn with a production of Macbeth, this will be followed by a look at Noel Coward's play, Blithe Spirit, by Random Accomplice director Johnny McKnight. O'Riordan will then return to direct this year's Christmas show. Cinderella will be the last show to grace the Perth stage in its current guise, after which O'Riordan has ambitious plans for the company which aim to raise the theatre's profile even more than she already has done.
In the meantime, however, O'Riordan can bask in the glory, not just of The Odd Couple and Kenny Miller's production of John Godber's play, April in Paris, but of last season's centrepiece, The Seafarer. More than any other show, Conor McPherson's hit play about a group of men playing cards late into the night who are joined by a stranger who might just be the devil cemented O'Riordan's place in Perth.
“It felt like I had my feet under the table,” O'Riordan says. “I'd made some changes here in terms of how things happen, and I think I had more confidence. I felt more like I was properly at the helm after a process of assimilation. Lots of things we'd tried worked, like having A Play, A Pie and A Pint here, which was very new here when I arrived. Audiences have responded favourably to these things, and much of that is down to the sort of teamwork that goes on here.”
As well as being a clear labour of love for O'Riordan, The Seafarer's Scottish premiere also marked the first co-production between Perth and and the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, where the play transferred to following its Perth run. This is a relationship O'Riordan is keen to continue alongside other opportunities to co-produce.
“I wanted to do that from the day I started,” O'Riordan admits, “so it was brilliant to pull it off. That was primarily because of the text, but it was also something to do with my relationship with the Lyric, and to develop a relationship between Perth and my contacts there. The Lyric was instrumental in my career development, so it was great to make that link. I genuinely believe there is an authentic link between Northern Ireland and Scotland, and that came across in the audience reaction to the play.”
In many ways, the supernatural elements of The Seafarer looks set to have a considerable influence on O'Riordan's take on Macbeth.
“I couldn't not do it here,” she says. “With all the geographical references, if I didn't do it I think I'd be avoiding something terribly obvious. I think I'm at my best as a director when I allow myself to be fearless, and not worry about the rights and wrongs of something textually. With Macbeth, I want to capture a wildness about the play, and a particular wildness that existed in Scotland at the time. Shakespeare has set the play in his imagined version of eleventh century Scotland and a mediaeval mindset, but the renaissance mindset is pretty close to that. All mean by that is that I'm interested in material that examines the non-secular, and that allows the possibility of otherness happening on a stage. I don't mean that in a metaphorical or allegorical way, but as something actual.
“Shakespeare and the characters in the play's understanding of the things that go on in the play are to do with the supernatural and the devil, even though God and the devil don't appear in the play. Yet to a mediaeval mind, those energies and those spirits are as real as they are to each other. That's kind of like The Seafarer in a way, in that we decided that the character Benny Young was playing wasn't just some guy trying to pull a fast one, but he was actually the devil. I'm intrigued by that, and I've a way I want to look at Macbeth which I hope will bring these things out. Post Freud, lots of Shakespeare's work gets diluted in my mind to something more psychological, but I want to get back to a non-secular approach, so if there ids a ghost on stage, it's not a figment of someone's imagination, but it is actually a ghost. It's difficult for us living now to go there, but that's the place I want to go with Macbeth.”
Beyond Macbeth, Blithe Spirit will mark Johnny McKnight's first main-stage production of a classic comedy not penned by himself.
“I love Johnny's work,” O'Riordan enthuses. “He's a very old-school theatrical animal, and while his work pokes fun at things, it's done from a point of kindness, and an almost familial approach. I think Coward was doing the same thing, and that's why I wanted to put the two together.”
While Cinderella will mark the end of an era on a high, what happens beyond that should prove even more interesting. O'Riordan has already spoken in these pages about plans for an ambitious site-specific project, she also intends keeping Perth Theatre in the public eye by touring newly commissioned work to outlying areas.
“What I'm trying to when we're working off-site is to go out to communities, and say hello, we're a theatre company, we do this kind of work, and we're going to be reopening our building in a couple of years, what do you think? My job for the next to years is to show audiences who might not have been here that Perth Theatre is for them. I love this building, and I practically live here, but I also think Perth Theatre is really important, and is a huge part of the future of Scottish theatre. The audiences we already have get that, and with a bit more love, we can make that even more important than it already is.”
Tickets for Perth Theatre Season shows go on sale to subscribers on 17 June.
The Herald, June 4th 2013