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Interview with Sean Holmes, Artistic Director of the Lyric Hammersmith

5 September 2012 | Charlie Kenber

Charlie Kenber talks to Sean Holmes about his latest production, the role of playwrights and the importance of theatrical youth...

Renowned for his work with top theatre companies across the UK, Sean Holmes joined the Lyric Hammersmith as Artistic Director in 2009 to much expectation: many saw in him the return of the playwright to a theatre deeply involved in devised and experimental work. Several years on, and the theatre has certainly changed, whilst broadly this ‘divide’ is less well-defined.

But where is the Lyric Hammersmith now? What is Sean’s vision for the work produced there? “We’re a beautiful proscenium theatre inside a seventies concrete box. That sums up our tension and dynamic” he tells us. “We do unexpected work, work that is challenging. Work that’s eclectic as well: we did a demented Midsummer Night’s Dream that would have Shakespeare spinning in his grave but probably enjoying it.” With such an innovative approach to the work produced, Sean has been able to personally direct a series of quite radical plays – including his Olivier-award-winning production of Sarah Kane’s Blasted. “The other day I looked at a list of shows I’ve done here, and thought WOW. I would never have been able to do those probably in another theatre and definitely as a freelancer”.

Not only is the space and work varied, but the Lyric Hammersmith’s clientele also differs to that of most London theatres. “Our audience tends to be younger and more diverse than one normally experiences in theatre” Sean explains. “They are hungry for new experiences, and quite open. I feel the audience are really engaging with what we’re doing, they’re hungry to see work they haven’t seen before or new work.” This would also seem to apply to the focus of the work produced, which almost mirrors the audience’s makeup. “What’s interesting is how many of our plays have young people at the centre, more by accident than design” – true of all the Lyric’s most popular productions, including Punk Rock, Mogadishu, Blasted andSaved.

This focus on the young is carefully fostered at the Lyric Hammersmith through a burgeoning youth theatre programme. Indeed, Sean’s most recent production of Morning (returning to London this month from a successful run in Edinburgh) directly took advantage of this wonderful resource. Talking of his arrival in 2009, Sean tells us “the first thing that struck me was the depth and range of talent in the young company. Simon Stephens (who wrote Morning) and I were talking about how we could use it in a different way. We are both quite influenced by the European model, particularly that of the Junges Theater in Basel. They have classes like we do, but also do shows with an established director and writer.” This system allows full-scale productions to work with the Lyric Young Company, “What’s interesting about the response to Morning is that almost without exception, whether they loved it or hated it, they didn’t patronise it as a piece of youth theatre.”

Under David Farr’s leadership the Lyric earned a strong reputation for promoting devised theatre. Sean’s arrival in 2009 promised the return of the playwright, in a clear example of what many see as the key divide of British theatre – between devised and authored work. “I think it’s about how we approach authored work that’s the interesting thing” Sean suggests. “The divide is becoming less and less pronounced. The more interesting question is around new writing and the revival of classics.”

Either way, the playwright has long been placed at the very heart of the British theatrical process. “I wonder if in this country, the tradition...makes us hide behind the writer. It stops us making the choices that we might make.” Again, it becomes a question of approach, rather than a structural change, “The playwright is still central, but it’s about how they’re central. Simon [Stephens] was very central in Three Kingdoms, but the director wasn’t hiding behind him.”

Clearly, Sean’s approach to theatre is partially informed by Simon and the rest of his artistic associates, who prove immensely beneficial to the theatre’s dynamic. “It’s very important having people connected to the theatre whose only job is to defend, promote and challenge the arts. They’re here on a very part time basis, but are very important to the culture of the theatre... in fact Simon’s Morning has come out of the relationship with the Lyric.”

Despite all the extra pressures of the Artistic Directorship, Sean continues to direct: his latest project is a revival of Eugene O’Neil’s Desire Under the Elms, which draws on the Greek myths of Phaedra, Hippolytus andTheseus in an American setting. “I just think it’s a great play! Given he wrote it in 1925 it’s an incredibly radical play – he takes all the elements of great drama and puts it in an American farm. Those elemental pressures are the most interesting; I’m less interested in the period...It’s about creating a world that’s simple and stark.”

So whilst Sean appreciates the play’s setting, this is not its most important component for him. “It’s all about elemental theatre. Theatre is about the presentation of human behaviour – this is a real example of that. I want to avoid dungarees, fiddles and pitchforks; I want to see how humans behave. It’s still shocking and powerful, and a play not many people know... it’s in our tradition of doing plays that get under your skin, surprise you, so that you leave changed.”

This tradition is certainly to be continued, although not in a way you’d expect. “In true Lyric style” as he puts it, Desire Under the Elms is to be immediately followed by Cinderella, the Lyric’s pantomime. “It’s always like that; we go from Blasted to Dick Whittington!” Sean remarks. “It is one of the best times in the theatre when it’s full of people coming to see the pantomime.” Hot on its tail returns the previously highly successful production of Metamorphosis by Icelandic troupe VesturPort. “We wanted to bring them back; they’re a company we really like. It’s a while since they’ve been in London, and something we wanted people to see.”

So whether you’re interested in edgy revivals, groundbreaking new writing, or perhaps the odd panto, Sean’s Lyric Hammersmith will continue to carve its own, important niche in London’s theatre ecology.

Morning runs until 22 September at the Lyric Hammersmith. Tickets from £12.50 to £15.

Desire Under the Elms runs from 3rd October to 10th November at the Lyric Hammersmith. Tickets from £12.50 to £35.

Image Credit: Simon Kane

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