Interview: Rachel O’Riordan on Macbeth, Perth Theatre

The mother of invention

Perth Theatre, under the artistic direction of Rachel O’Riordan, is not afraid to break the mould in its take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth… and it’s no surprise that she is writing herself into the history of a Scottish theatrical Renaissance. By Mark Brown

I have long agreed with the view, which is still considered controversial in some circles, that Scotland has, for a variety of historical reasons (chiefly the prohibitions of our Calvinist Reformation), very little by way of a theatre tradition. We are now, I believe, living in the best days of Scottish theatre; a sort of a theatrical Renaissance which dates back as recently as the 1960s.

Rachel O'Riordan
Rachel O’Riordan

At the heart of that Renaissance have been a series of directors, such as: Giles Havergal, Philip Prowse and Robert David MacDonald (the famous “triumvirate” at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre); John McGrath (of 7:84); Gerry Mulgrew and Alison Peebles (of Communicado); and, more recently, Dominic Hill (of Dundee Rep, the Traverse and, now, the Citz). There is a growing sense that – in the (for some unlikely) location of Perth Theatre – there is another fine director who is writing herself into the history of the modern Scottish theatrical Renaissance.

Since taking the reins at Perth in 2011, following success both as a freelance director and with Ransom Theatre Company (the new writing company she founded in Belfast in 2002), she has staged a series of acclaimed productions, culminating in her superb rendering of Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer (co-produced with the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, which picked up the Best Director and Best Ensemble gongs at this year’s Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland). Meeting O’Riordan at Perth Theatre to discuss her latest production, her take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth (co-produced with Glasgow’s Tron Theatre), it isn’t difficult to grasp why she is considered such an exceptional director.

The Irishwoman is very much in the mould of the creators of continental European “director’s theatre”. Not for her the typically British reverence for the theatrical canon and received ways of presenting it.

What this means, in particular, is that her starting point in casting the production was not to seek to entice home some “big name” Scottish actor who, having made his name in Hollywood, would ensure the proverbial bums on seats. “I’m against that lock, stock”, she says. “I’m a great believer in ensemble playing, and Macbeth is an ensemble play. I have no interest in the kind of actor who tells me what they’re going to do before they start rehearsals.

“Without putting too fine a point on it”, she continues, “I wanted to do my version of the play. For that I needed a company of actors who wanted to come with me on that journey.” She has, indeed, assembled a very promising looking company, led by the excellent Scottish actor Keith Fleming (as Macbeth) and acclaimed, young Welsh actress Leila Crerar (Lady Macbeth).

O’Riordan’s originality and directorial vision are especially evident in her characterisation of Lady M. “There’s a real sexual challenge on Lady Macbeth’s part”, she observes. “As a female director staging the play, I’m trying to tap right into that. You will not see a masculine Lady Macbeth in this production. Her sexual power is entirely feminine, she’s not aping a man.

“We, as theatre makers, can sometimes do productions which are actually versions of other productions. A collective consciousness develops about what a character is. It’s a received perception of that character, rather than a rendering of the character that’s drawn directly off the page. I’m trying to go right back to the play itself and not impose anything on the character.

In setting aside centuries of ingrained preconceptions about the character of Lady M, O’Riordan is reconceiving one of the best known female roles in a very exciting way. “I’m playing her young”, she explains. “In Shakespeare’s imagined, 11th-century Scotland , she’s going to be 13 or 14.

“She goes from her father’s house to her husband’s house as a present, in an arranged marriage. She’s never had the chance to learn through experience, because all the major decisions in her life have been made by her father and then her husband.”

Considered in this way, Lady M’s urging Macbeth onto the murder of King Duncan, indeed her insistence that she could commit the regicide herself, becomes a matter of an aristocratic young woman’s fantasy, and of the disconnect in her mind between what is abstract (her desire to be Queen) and what is real (the bloody actuality of slaughter).

“In her mind she jumped over the reality of murder and went straight on to being Queen”, the director contends. “We all do that sort of thing. It’s a sort of teenage bravado. In the abstract she’s as bold as brass, but in reality she’ never seen the likes of this before.”

For O’Riordan, the very fact that the play opens itself up to such a reading is testament to Shakespeare’s genius. “I think it’s fascinating, it’s almost the arrival of psychiatry on the stage. Shakespeare’s writing about mental disturbances at a time when doctors were sticking leeches in people’s ears.”

There is something deeply intriguing about O’Riordan’s promise of a Macbeth played through a strong, original directorial vision, by an ensemble which is committed to that vision and which puts at the play’s heart the sexual power of a young, teenage Lady M. Where better than Perth (in the heart of Macbeth country) for the play to be so refreshed?

Macbeth is at Perth Theatre, September 18 to October 5, and Tron Theatre, Glasgow, October 8-19.

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on September 15, 2013

© Mark Brown

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