RACHEL O'RIORDAN: 'People from Belfast have a gallows humour - possibly from surviving the Troubles'

RACHEL O'RIORDAN: 'People from Belfast have a gallows humour - possibly from surviving the Troubles'

CORK-BORN director Rachel O’Riordan led theatres in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland before finding her way to west London, where she is currently Artistic Director at the Lyric Hammersmith.

With success a-plenty under her belt already – her work has scooped national awards and produced industry firsts – she told The Irish Post what she has got planned for the capital…

Your first season at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre began in September 2019, how’s everything going?

It’s going great – we’re seeing really strong audience figures and there’s a great energy in the theatre. The Lyric is the largest subsidised theatre in London after the National Theatre, and we occupy a really unique role in the London theatre ecology. I’m particularly proud to be here in Hammersmith, at the heart of a diverse community - a community that, traditionally, has a really large Irish population.

What inspires your production choices?


The themes I’m interested in exploring involve looking differently at classic plays. For example, Tanika Gupta’s version of A Doll’s House was my first show at the Lyric. Tanika reimagined Ibsen, setting his play in 1879 Calcutta, which felt particularly relevant to the large Asian and Indian communities who live in West London and Hammersmith & Fulham.

I want to create work that serves and responds to the community – my programming will always reflect that. Big, bold stories with heart and soul are what I like.

What challenges have you faced so far? 

Everybody who runs a subsidised theatre faces challenges every day. We’re always trying to make everything we want with the money we have. We want to be ambitious and relevant – and we want to make sure we’re serving all areas of our community.

The challenges are, largely, to do with balancing those ambitions with finance – and making sure that, whilst we can’t please everybody all the time, we certainly try and relate to as many people as we possibly can.

And what have been your highlights? 

We have just announced our major co-production with Anthology of a new musical called Sammy, based on the life of Sammy Davis Jr. This is an ambitious project for the Lyric and at the moment that’s a highlight.  I’m also incredibly excited for Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love, our next show. It’s the first major revival in a decade and it’s a thrilling experience for me. I’m working with some extraordinary actors including Rachael Stirling and Nicholas Burns.


It’s funny, it’s moving and really, really relatable… this is not one to miss.

Love, Love, Love has always been a crowd-pleaser, how are you approaching the Lyric’s revival? 

What’s interesting is that Mike didn’t want to do anything to the play, in terms of rewrites. It’s exactly as it was 10 years ago; so what’s more fascinating is how much the world around the play has changed.  Sometimes a revival isn’t so much about changing the text, it’s about the changing environment in which the play sits. Themes of generational conflict, inherited wealth, poverty and failed ambition all feel slightly different now, ten years on.

It’s a three act play but there is almost an imaginary fourth act now, which is set in “2020” and lives in the audience’s imagination. It’s about how they, the audience, feel about the play.

What should those who don’t know the piece expect from the play?

To laugh until they ache - and to feel provoked and moved.

Can you tell us a little about your Irish background? 


I was born in Cork and lived there until I was about four – and then, like a lot of Irish people of that generation, my dad left Ireland to work and we moved to Leeds. I spent ten years there and then he got another job, back in Ireland - but in the North of Ireland this time. So I grew up between Leeds and the North of Ireland and, like a lot of immigrant families, our life, language and culture changed with every move we needed to make. My parents were both Irish speakers, and my dad was a fluent speaker and published in Irish, too; his name was Robert Welch - some people reading this paper might know of him.

You’ve been described as a ‘working class Irishwoman heading up a London theatre’ – how do you feel about that and the responsibility attached?

I don’t think I am working class. One, because I have this job, and two, because of my dad. Though he was born in a working class family, he didn’t end up being so. He was of a generation where it was possible to get a good education with the Christian Brothers and was a Grammar Schoolboy.

Though, in many ways, I suppose I do feel working class. That is my background. But it feels disingenuous to say I am when I have a job like this. I would like to see more people from different backgrounds in jobs like mine.

Does your Irishness influence your role? 

It’s funny you should ask that. I went to see a play last month and there was one moment where only I burst out laughing… no-one else in the audience found it funny. I was describing the situation to my boyfriend and he said: “oh that’s your Belfast humour…”

A lot of people from Belfast have a gallows humour.  I think it comes from surviving the Troubles and living in an environment surrounded by a lot of violence, difficulty and sectarianism.


We are excited to see a revival of The Beauty Queen of Leenane planned for the Lyric later this year; can you tell us anything about it?

It was Martin McDonagh’s first play, which he wrote at the age of 25 which is unbelievable... it’s heart-breaking, but it’s also the epitome of rural Irish humour. It’s not traditionally jokey - it’s deadpan, slightly dry, dark humour.

McDonagh is one of the great writers of our time, and he manages to capture such humanity in his work, which in turn makes you feel so heavily invested in the characters. He draws characters so brilliantly that, as an audience, you feel like you disappear into somebody else’s imagined world. Even if you’ve never been to rural Ireland – or Ireland at all – you will feel like you’re in that isolated, rainy, grim mountain that the women inhabit… and he does it all with such clever, witty language.

Speaking more to the political side of it, it’s a real attack on the patriarchy because the women portrayed here are victims of a male dominated societal structure, which was particularly brutal in Ireland.

There is always great Irish theatre - playwrights, directors and actors - to be found across London and in Britain more generally – why do you think the Irish are so prevalent in this arena?

Well actually, I am the first Irish Artistic Director of this theatre – and we are generally few and far between in London, so I’m not sure we’re that heavily represented!

There has always been a brilliant tradition of making theatre in Ireland because of the Abbey Theatre, the roots of which were planted due to rebellion; perhaps that spirit has stayed with Irish writers, actors and directors through the years. It makes for good theatre, a bit of edge!


What is the ultimate goal for you as Artistic Director at the Lyric – and how do you plan to get there?

The ultimate goal is full houses and good programming – and to get to a position where everyone feels welcome here, in the heart of Hammersmith.

Rachel O’Riordan directs Love, Love, Love at the Lyric Hammersmith Theatre from 05 March – 04 April. Rachel will also direct The Beauty Queen of Leenane later this year. For full listings and tickets click here.