Deepa Lalwani speaks to the Lyric Hammersmith's Artistic Director and Joint Chief Executive, Rachel O'Riordan, about her love of Hammersmith & Fulham, and her vision for reopening the theatre.
“There’s something really brilliant about ending up in Hammersmith and Fulham,” says Rachel O’Riordan, Artistic Director for the borough’s very own Lyric Theatre. O’Riordan is well-travelled – an Irish theatre director, her career spans Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England – and she moved all the way from Cardiff to London to take up the job.
With all her experience of theatre across the country, she loves that the Lyric’s home is the diverse borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, “an area [that] has such a wonderful history of immigration.” She tells me that during her drive to London, (“I can’t drive, my friend gave me a lift!”) she was struck by how Hammersmith and Fulham is really the first place you reach when you come into London from the west. To her, it was “quite beautiful” that the borough has become home to so many people of so many backgrounds.
Having excellence on your doorstep is something I’m really excited about for the audiences of Hammersmith & Fulham
O’Riordan’s interest in representing the immigrant communities here is clear from her work so far. Her inaugural season at the Lyric last year kicked off with an adaptation of Ibsen’s classic “A Doll’s House”, radically reimagining it in India under British rule. Last month, the Lyric uploaded a recording of the show to YouTube, broadcasting it online for thousands who had missed it, and many who wanted to rewatch. “I really wanted to make the Lyric feel welcoming,” she says, noting too how pleased she was about lead actor Anjana Vasan’s nomination for Best Actress in the Evening Standard Theatre Awards. “I love working on classic texts that have been reimagined,” O’Riordan continues, “The Lyric’s building itself is a mix of old and new.” Even outside the theatre, O’Riordan loves the combination of old and new in the Lyric’s architecture, and speaks of its 1890s building, modern auditorium designed by Frank Matcham, and how it’s surrounded by shops, offices and restaurants on all sides.
It’s a shame that O’Riordan’s first season was cut short by the lockdown, but there’s no denying it was a success. I ask her what she misses the most about working at the Lyric, and what she’s looking forward to returning to. “I’m devasted about Antigone, directed by Roy Alexander Weise.” The show was meant to feature a host of young actors, “Roy and I are having conversations about bringing it back, doing something in the future with it.” Similarly, on the new Sammy Davis Jr. musical that should have been in rehearsals as we speak: “so much has been lost.” Sammy is meant to star award-winning actor Giles Terera (of “Hamilton” fame), who O’Riordan praises as “one of Britain’s best actors”. She would love to see him on the Lyric stage at some point; as she says, “having excellence on your doorstep is something I’m really excited about for the audiences of Hammersmith and Fulham.”
With all the uncertainty, it’s hard to know what will go ahead when, especially for an industry that’s really about human connection. “I really miss seeing people in the flesh,” O’Riordan says, “Theatre is such a shared, human experience.” She’s currently with her mum in Ireland, and should be returning to London soon. “I think this [lockdown] is something we’ve got to get through, because I passionately believe in theatre as something that does a good thing for human beings, bringing people together.”
Right on your doorstep, you’ve got a theatre that’s producing really exciting shows, and you can walk there!
With that in mind, I ask O’Riordan how residents of the borough can support the Lyric, and the wider theatre industry, at this time. “I think the most important thing people can do is to remember, and to stay excited and interested in theatre. It’s hard to do when it’s not happening, but I think people missing theatre is our strongest argument for it coming back. The best thing people can do is to speak up for it – and to book tickets when they can!”
For the Hammersmith and Fulham community in particular, O’Riordan is hoping that locals will be able to come to the Lyric on foot. “Right on your doorstep, you’ve got a theatre that’s producing really exciting shows, and you can walk there – you can have a glass of wine in our roof garden, and then you can walk home!” It’s never been so important that members of the community have access to not only shops and restaurants, but arts and culture too. “I know that seems like a small thing, but coming out of this pandemic, I think it’ll mean a lot to people. Having a neighbourhood theatre is a real asset.”