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Rachel O’Riordan: "We’re not in competition with Netflix"

Rachel O’Riordan: "We’re not in competition with Netflix"

Rachel O’Riordan: "We’re not in competition with Netflix" cover photo on Stagedoor
Lyn and the artistic director discuss the success of Accidental Death of an Anarchist, future programming at the Lyric Hammersmith, and the need for theatres to be bold.

Rachel O’Riordan, the artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith, reckons that theatres need to stop comparing themselves to Netflix and worrying whether they can entice audiences from their sofas.

"We’re not in competition with Netflix or brilliant shows like Succession. We are a completely different offer, and we should stop driving ourselves mad by comparing ourselves to them. People like different things on different nights. Theatre can provide a different conversation, and I don’t think a proliferation of fabulous TV is going to kill theatre."

She’s right, and under O'Riordan, the Lyric Hammersmith—that gorgeous late 19th-century Frank Matcham auditorium housed in a modern building on Hammersmith Broadway—is having a renaissance in a complex post-pandemic landscape.

It’s a theatre that has always proved a tricky proposition for its leaders and works best when the more than century-old architecture is in constant dialogue with contemporary issues. O’Riordan has more of that delivered in shows like Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott and Tom Basden’s modern take on Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist, which landed in the same week as the blistering report into the culture and actions of the Met Police. As O’Riordan observes, "the auditorium comes most alive when the material is a bit provocative."

Daniel Rigby in Accidental Death of an Anarchist, photo by Helen Murray.

On Monday, the riotously enjoyable Accidental Death of an Anarchist, a co-production with the on-a-roll Sheffield Theatres and Playful Productions, sails into the West End and takes up residence at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Fo’s original play may have been written in 1970 in Italy, but Basden’s new version reminds us, and does it in an unruly fashion, that police brutality and corruption are a modern British disease too. Almost 2,000 people have died in police custody in the UK over the last 30 years. As Time Out observed, this is a show that is "simultaneously packed with righteous anger at our country’s political establishment and so funny that even the most earnest champagne socialist will spit out their drink laughing."

Or, as O’Riordan puts it so succinctly, "theatre can be part of contemporary conversations, but we are also giving people a good time." Accidental Death of an Anarchist certainly does that.

As Anarchist sets out to conquer the West End, back out west in Hammersmith, the Lyric is offering the UK premiere of Jocelyn Bioh’s cult New York hit comedy School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play. A play described by its author as "a love letter to young black girls," it’s set in a prestigious Ghanaian girls' boarding school in 1986, where the recruiter for the Miss Ghana pageant is just about to arrive and Paulina and her clique are confident of success. Or at least they are until the arrival of a new girl.

It's another piece of bold, confident programming from O'Riordan, who made such a success of the Sherman in Cardiff before moving to the Lyric less than a year before the pandemic. Her revival of Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love had just opened when the lockdown came. Before that, she made a statement of intent with Tanika Gupta‘s adaptation of A Doll’s House, which relocated the play to Calcutta in 1879, two years after Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India. Suddenly, a play about the subjugation of women also became one about colonialism and the way paternalism and patriarchy were used to oppress a continent. Gupta’s The Empress, in a production by Pooja Ghai for the RSC, will be seen at the Lyric in October.

"We owe it to our audiences to be brave," says O’Riordan. "We have to be bold because we serve a massive part of London and a really diverse part of the city where there is great wealth and great poverty. The Lyric is the second-largest subsidised theatre in London after the National, so we have to be ambitious and make the work that audiences want to see. We have a lot of seats to sell, so we have to appeal to a lot of different people." She adds, "You can’t second guess the audience and what they want, but you can reach out and feel their pulse and respond accordingly."

The cast in rehearsals for Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, photo by Manuel Harlan.

That is not necessarily what we are seeing at the moment at other theatres, which appear to be extremely risk-averse and are finding it hard to get audiences back post-pandemic. O’Riordan agrees that it is currently not easy to run a major theatre, but she has had the pleasure of being able to put House Full signs out for some performances of both Iphigenia and Anarchist. This year, she also directed the hit Gary Owen play Romeo and Julie for the NT.

At a time when some theatres are trying to save money by reducing their offer, O’Riordan argues that just as theatre is not in direct competition with Netflix, neither are theatres in competition with each other.

"I believe that appetite feeds appetite. Theatres shouldn’t fear competition from each other. We have to create more appetite, and the way to do that is to have every theatre really knocking it out of the park with their programming and productions." The argument that in times of crisis, more great ambitious work creates demand is a good one. Because it is sell-out shows like Accidental Death of an Anarchist that not only create demand but also help support the development of future great work, which in turn drives demand.

"I think we need to have more confidence in what we do in theatre because there is nothing like it, nothing to touch the live experience," says O’Riordan. "If people think that theatre is struggling, it doesn’t make it sound like a great night out. But if we are ambitious and say, "Come and be part of something thrilling’ and make sure that we appeal to the widest audience by telling different stories in the most exciting way, then that is an offer that feels appealing. We need to remember we are in the entertainment business."

Cover image of Daniel Rigby in Accidental Death of an Anarchist which opens in the West End on Monday 12 June 2023. Photo by Helen Murray.

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Lyn Gardner

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