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Changing of the Guard: Lyric Hammersmith

We resume our occasional series on new artistic directors with the Lyric Hammersmith’s David Farr. After a consolidating first year in the job, he’s now launched his own first, fully programmed - & physically ambitious - season at the west London theatre.

By • West End


Last summer, David Farr took over as artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith from Neil Bartlett, who stepped down after ten years in the job.

Formerly artistic director of London’s Gate Theatre from 1995 to 1998, at the beginning of 2003, writer-director Farr took over Bristol Old Vic as joint artistic director alongside his long-time collaborator Simon Reade (See “Changing of the Guard: Bristol & Leeds”, Features, 17 Feb 2003). Together, the two were credited with re-establishing the venue as one of the country’s leading regional theatres.

In addition to his work at Bristol, including acclaimed stagings of Paradise Lost, Twelfth Night and Tamburlaine (which transferred to the Barbican), Farr has directed for the Young Vic, Almeida and National Theatre (including his own play, The UN Inspector with Michael Sheen), while his productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company have included Coriolanus with Greg Hicks, his own play Night of the Soul and Julius Caesar. Other plays he’s written include Elton John’s Glasses (at Watford before transferring to the West End), The Danny Crowe Show (Bush) and Crime and Punishment in Dalston (Arcola).

When Farr’s Lyric appointment was announced, he outlined some of his vision for the theatre, saying: “I want to bring to the Lyric’s diverse and dynamic audience a body of work that celebrates all the magical possibilities of the live theatre experience.” While during his first year in the job, most of the programming had been put in place by his predecessor, the new, just-opened autumn/winter season heavily bears Farr’s signature.


What was the first production you ever saw at the Lyric Hammersmith?

It must have been early Nineties. I saw a whole series of shows, from Complicite to the Maly Theatre. The Maly was probably the thing that most struck me. This theatre looked like a conventional Victorian auditorium, and yet it was doing this work that was groundbreaking and combined real theatrical languages - physical, highly visual, strong use of music - to tell stories that had real meaning and were relevant. I was in my early 20s at the time and I had just started to get to know European stuff, and particularly some Eastern European stuff, at the Edinburgh Festival. To see that work on a bigger stage here, reaching large audiences, made me think something’s happening to British theatre which is very exciting. We’ve seen that increase over the last ten or 15 years, with more and more British companies and artists who’ve been influenced by Eastern Europe and who are combining our strength, which is actors delivering the spoken word, with a much more physical style. This has led to genuinely exciting generation of theatre makers. I can remember, when film was really starting to dominate, people saying to me: “Where does theatre belong? It’s such an old fashioned form.” Nobody’s saying that any more. To me, that’s because it’s live, and it’s dangerous and new because it’s live and immediate. That’s what draws people back because we do yearn still for the live experience – but theatre has to be genuinely live and exciting, it has to take advantage of that fact and accept that. I think writing, particularly new writing, that remains slightly pseudo-naturalistic has suffered because it can be done better elsewhere. New work that’s exuberantly theatrical has flourished. And that’s what we try to do here.

What made you want to be a theatre director
in the first place?

When I was a teenager, I was totally obsessed by movies and thought I might be a film critic or maybe an English teacher who loved my movies. So everything I learned about storytelling came from films, and I still do think about those classic movies a lot. Theatre came later, when I was at university. Obviously, for financial reasons you don’t make films as a student, you make plays. I discovered that you could make plays in a way people weren’t making them - you could make plays which cut in the way films cut and the benefit was they became more theatrical. I started a company with a couple of actresses – Rachel Weisz, who’s become a bit of a movie star now, and Sasha Hails and I directed and they performed. We did about seven shows and won an award in Edinburgh. That’s really how I got started. So I bumped into theatre really through doing it. Growing up, I wasn’t someone who saw loads of plays.

Why did you want the job of artistic director at the Lyric?

Initially, I didn’t even apply. I’d been running Bristol Old Vic with Simon Reade and I knew I hadn’t finished my business there. We’d made a real success of it and had a fantastic time with a really good group of people. But I remember thinking when the Lyric job came up that this place had this extraordinary potential audience that was younger and much more diverse, a real urban audience, and therefore possibly I could take more risks here. I’m still relatively young, just about. There’s a time when you can still make work for a young audience and have that connection and vaguely understand what’s going on in their brains. While I don’t want the Lyric to become an exclusively for young people theatre, I do want to make sure that everything we do is an exhilarating experience for a 15- or 16-year-old. That’s really important to me. There’s no conflict between catering for them and for a middle-aged theatregoer who goes to the theatre all the time. I do think there’s good theatre that would bore a 15-year-old, but I don’t think there’s good theatre a 15-year-old would enjoy that a 50-year-old wouldn’t. I no longer want to see that conflict between risk-taking and being popular. I have a feeling that exciting, provocative work here will pay off. We’ve already done shows that have been really risky, like Nights at the Circus and The Odyssey. I hope Metamorphosis and the rest of new season will be the same.

How would you rate your predecessor's tenure?

I’m a big fan of Neil Bartlett’s work. I think I saw most of his shows. Things like Pericles and The Prince of Homburg were extremely beautiful. Neil is a wonderful director and he should be directing more now. I would say that Neil’s work is very specific, fantastic, I would go and watch it every time it was on. It’s quite different from the work of some of the companies that were beginning to come and work here, such as Kneehigh and Frantic Assembly. I think my work is more similar to the work of these other companies. My intention, for this theatre’s next step in its evolution, has been to bring the body of work together more into one clear unit, one identity. So we are not just producing or receiving, we are doing a lot more co-producing and creating a family of artists who want to create the same sort of work. That means you’re not going to see that many straight conventional plays on stage at the Lyric. You’re going to see new versions of work, exciting physical and visual adaptations of existing stories or texts. Maybe we’ll even see some brand new work eventually, but that new work won’t be conventional plays, it will be something created through a devising process, similar to the work of Robert LePage. We’re trying to find artists who want to work in that kind of way and then once we’ve done that we want to tour that work and take it out nationally and internationally. Our kind of work has huge international appeal partly, because it is less language-obsessed. I think that’s why European artists like Gisli like to come here.

How long will you remain in the job?
How will you measure your success?

I’ll stay here as long as we’re all happy. I suppose five years is a good benchmark. I’ll measure my success… the most important thing is I want the theatre to be full, and I want it to be full of the most diverse theatre audience in London. We’re doing very well, playing to about 60 to 70% houses. Apart from the National, we’re the biggest subsidised theatre in terms of seats in London. We’ve got 550 seats, that’s a big space. The plus side of that, of course, is that we can create big experiences because our stage is big, and we’ve got all the technical gear we want. Whatever we want visually, we can do it here, it’s all possible. It also means, on a financial level, that if we do well then we really do very well, which is fabulous. So filling the theatre is the most important thing because that breeds the growth that we want. I also want to the Lyric to have a very clear signature behind its work and yet for it to be able to embrace all sorts of different artists and companies who work within that signature. I want us to create three or four absolutely groundbreaking pieces, the kind where people say “this is a major moment in theatre history”. And I really want to take work abroad and get the Lyric a name internationally. There’s another side to the British theatre industry that I’m much less concerned about which is about the West End. If we have a huge West End hit then great, but it’s not something that obsesses me. One can get too worried about that sort of thing. There are some very exciting West End entrepreneurs who are willing to go on the journey more. They’re not looking at off-the-shelf hits as such, they’re interested in developing a relationship with artists. If we help develop an artist who goes on to write something for us that goes to the West End, I’m very in favour of that. It’s the off-the-shelf buying that won’t work with us here because we don’t know exactly what we’re creating so how on earth can you buy it off the shelf?

What do you consider the highlights of your just-announced season?

My two aims have been to do work very physically and visually, but also to tell stories, because I believe audiences love great narratives. I’m also very interested in collaboration so the whole of the season is based around those principles. The first piece of the season, Kafka’s Metamorphosis (which runs until 28 October 2006), is one of my favourite stories. and I’ve always really wanted to find a way to do it. I found a way when I met Gisli Orn Gardarsson who has a very similar interest to me in making theatre that is physical and alive. I have a real intellectual passion for it, I think it’s a profound piece of writing. Kafka basically invented the idea of alienation - from work, family, the stultifying repetitive nature of modern-day existence. I think the beetle is the ultimate metaphor for alienation that we have, and it does sort of predict the horror of the 20th century. In that one very simple image of a family destroying their beetle son, you get flashes of the Second World War and what Hitler did to the Jews. It manages to be an extraordinarily political piece and yet there’s nothing in it that’s overtly political, just the terrified workings of Kafka’s brain. And in spite of all that, it’s funny and it’s hugely theatrical and oddly playful.

Then we have another collaboration, with Frantic Assembly, pool (no water). Mark Ravenhill has written a text and they’ve worked within that text to make a piece about jealousy and revenge. It’s very exciting and really quite disturbing and violent. Then at Christmas we have Watership Down, which is directed by Melly Still, who is the most talented theatre-maker for young audiences in the country, and what’s special about this is that it’s not just for young kids, it really isn’t you can bring your 14 year old to this. Anyone who’s read Watership Down knows it isn’t really about rabbits, it’s about survival and adventure and it’s an adventure story, based on Richard Adams’ experiences in the war. So, while we’ve always aimed at ten- and 11-year-olds at Christmas, if you’re 14 or 15, there’s no way it’s going to be too young for you, it’s great stuff.

In the New Year, we have the wonderful Kneehigh, who are long-term collaborators, coming here with Cymbeline. I’ve seen it, it’s wonderful, joyous. People shouldn’t expect the Shakespeare play. It’s a wonderful rip-off, about 20% Shakespeare and 80% Kneehigh. The season finishes with my version of Ramayana, the great Hindu myth, picking up a little bit from The Odyssey, which we did last year. This is going to be I think an extremely pure, very clear and a very beautiful retelling of that story of two lovers who are forced into the forest where they live a Garden of Eden life for a while. It’s about young love turning to older, sadder love, about love being not lost exactly but eroded into by experience. We also have some fantastic stuff this season in the Studio, too, with some younger, developing companies from very diverse communities.

Prior to your Lyric appointment, what would you view as
your greatest professional achievement?

I was very proud of a production of Crime and Punishment I did at the Arcola. I adapted it from the novel and relocated it to Dalston with a young black man as the lead role and a Turkish woman as his love. We went down to the local youth club and got about 15 teenagers between 14 and 17 who wrote all the music for it. It then went on to Radio 3 with their music. I think that showed how you can really get young people involved at a professional level with things they’re good at. When it went on Radio 3, nobody even batted an eyelid. Listeners would have assumed the music was by some young trendy hip-hop artist. And the teenagers all got paid which was marvellous. So I was really proud of that. And I’ve done two productions with Greg Hicks. He’s an actor I just really clicked with. Coriolanus at the RSC and Tamburlaine at Bristol and the Barbican were both very special, I was particularly proud of Tamburlaine. I’m looking at something else to do with Greg now. Because I’m not going to do that sort of classical drama here, it may be somewhere else.

Why is theatre important in modern Britain?

One of the key issues for society is how do you deal with the wonderful diverse population, particularly in big cities? Theatres tend to be in big cities, and I think theatre is a fantastic way of bringing different people together, bringing communities together, to hear stories. I do have a fundamental faith that, if a story is well told and has meaning, it can absolutely resonate with someone from a different community at a different time. Storytelling and story receiving is a great experience that can unite people. In a free society, sometimes we forget that and take that for granted. In a curious way, the very fact that our society is now more complex and political and vulnerable has given theatres new life whereas in the Nineties I thought it was a tough time for theatre.

How would you describe the current state of theatre?

I think the state of theatre is currently healthy but at risk because of funding. It’s so frustrating because the amount we’re talking about is negligible for the government. They get terrific value from the arts and we’re asking for nothing compared to what they spend on defence and transport. It does smack sometimes of wilfulness. I think theatre has a big role to play in society – although we also have a responsibility to be excellent and not exclusive.

What would you say to entice other first-time visitors to the Lyric?

People who come to the Lyric will see work that they’ll never forget, work that is truly theatrical, unlike anything they’ll see elsewhere. Whether they’ll like every piece is entirely up to them. Our front of house is very nice too! I believe that every part of a theatrical experience needs to be great. We’re building a brand new foyer downstairs; it’s friendly, open and stylish, very modern. It’s another way of expressing our identity. Historically, theatres have been dreadful – appallingly bad – you only need to look at other businesses like clothes shops to realise how many light years we are behind with presentation!


For more information on Farr’s appointment & his programming at the Lyric Hammersmith, see the following:

  • "Farr Premieres Ravenhill & Watership Down at Lyric" (News, 16 May 2006)
  • "Farr Opens Lyric Reign with Caesar, Takes Odyssey" (News, 2 Sep 2005)
  • "Bristol’s Farr Succeeds Bartlett as Lyric's Director " (News, 19 Oct 2004)


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