There's something of a theatrical revolution quietly taking place in West London. Under the artistic directorship of David Farr the Lyric Hammersmith is testing the boundaries of what can be achieved in the realm of theatre through a collection of collaborations, and shows that are evolved instead of written. With Metamorphosis, the first play of an exciting new season, in the final stages of its rehearsal period, Farr took time out to talk to Matthew Amer.
The cast of Metamorphosis is rehearsing at Three Mills Film Studio, as the set, which plays an integral part in the production, is too large to fit into an everyday rehearsal room. As director David Farr breaks for lunch, his co-director and lead actor Gísli Örn Gardarsson is climbing down the side of an elaborate and visually challenging house.
Farr explains: "The way we're doing [Metamorphosis], he [Gardarsson] spends half his time on the wall." Intriguingly, he divulges a little more about the feel of the season's opening production. "Everything that seems very normal is not very normal at all. Rather than having absurd beetle costumes, which we’re not very interested in, this is the way we’ve decided to do it."
If talk of beetles is slightly confusing, now would be a pertinent time to explain that Kafka's Metamorphosis is the tale of a man who, beaten down by life, wakes one morning to find that he has become an insect. As one might imagine, the story flips from hilarity to nightmare.
"I want to create work that is very, very theatrical, that pushes the boundaries"
Metamorphosis is a collaboration between Farr's Lyric Hammersmith and Icelandic company Vesturport. The initial discussions about the production sound like a chat in a pub; both parties had always wanted to tackle the piece and everything happily fell into place. A regular on the London theatre scene – having previously been seen at the Young Vic, Playhouse and Barbican – Vesturport has a unique approach to theatre, which appealed to Farr. "I just felt like it was ideal for us to collaborate," he says, "with their very physical style and my interest in mixing that with language and story." The opening piece of the new Lyric Hammersmith season, Metamorphosis is really setting the tone for everything that follows: "You can expect a high level of physicality, but also you can expect great characters and wit," Farr explains. "What we're always after is the integration of all the elements of theatre: music, the physical structure of the set, a few other nice theatrical moments along the way that are exciting and dangerous, but all hopefully serving the fundamental drive of the narrative."
This aim goes straight to the heart of what Farr is attempting to do at the Lyric Hammersmith; it's a vision he summed up in one handy, easily quotable phrase: "I want to create work that is very, very theatrical, that pushes the boundaries of what you can do on stage and that combines that with really good, rigorous and meaningful storytelling. I'm interested in the way one embraces everything that a theatre can do and I think that's the future."
Hearing Farr speak about his ambitions for the Lyric Hammersmith, one gets the feeling he has been itching to do this for a long while, but never had the right set of circumstances. Farr talks like a man full of the conviction that his hunch about how theatre should be performed is entirely correct.
"I think there's a very young – not only young, but generally young – and very diverse audience that is really attracted to this kind of work," he goes on, "that says 'this is theatre as I want to see it', because it's extremely theatrical, it doesn't pretend to be real in a conventional sense, it's not like television, it's not like film, it's got a slight danger to it, it's very immediate. When it's really good it's also extremely meaningful; that's terribly important, it has to say something. That immediacy and that liveness is what young audiences want to see. It's what London audiences, I think, want to see.
"I think, on the whole, what people would normally consider to be risky pays off with us," Farr continues, "as long as you're clever about what it is and how you present it. I think people respond to danger and riskiness and liveness and excitement, and we're offering that again and again and again. Every show has had some strong, highly intense theatricality. I'm really proud of that."
If there was ever any doubt that Farr was not sure what he was doing, it should now be put to rest. He has an absolute vision of where he wants to go and is unafraid of taking chances to get there. He takes pains to point out the difference between the Lyric Hammersmith as a producing house, able to have some artistic control over every show that graces its stage, and a West End receiving house that often can’t take the same gambles.
"I'm not interested in doing work that I think is marvellous but has only sold nine tickets"
With all the talk of pushing boundaries, trying new ways of working and producing theatre, Farr is still inexorably driven by the audience. "I've always been an artistic director that loves a full house," he admits. "I'm not really interested in doing work that I think is marvellous but has only sold nine tickets. We are about providing an alternative experience, but quality is the key."
Farr, while managing the tricky task of eating lunch while answering questions, puts one in mind of a mouse. His slight frame and delicate features complement the speed with which he lucidly talks. Though his cropped hair is beginning to get flecked with grey, he is still a youthful director, which is important when you are programming for a predominantly young audience.
The key to being a successful artistic director, Farr divulges, is the people that work closely with you. Farr's role, as he sees it, is to be a figurehead for the organisation while colleagues such as Executive Director Jessica Hepburn and Creative Producers Fuel perform a lot of the roles that Farr is unable to. "Once you’ve got the quality around you," he says in sage-like fashion, "hopefully you’re sensible and you just give them the freedom to get on with it." Hepburn, for example, has spearheaded the Lyric Hammersmith’s foyer redevelopment that Farr outlined as an important project for the theatre to address – "I just felt that the public spaces we had in the theatre were not in tune with what we were trying to express and communicate as an organisation" – while Fuel has been overseeing the research and development of prospective new projects.
One such project is the second show of the season, the Frantic Assembly/Mark Ravenhill joint venture, pool (no water). Though Farr saw the read through – "very exciting, very dangerous indeed, quite disturbing" – it has been left to Fuel to add their thoughts on the development of the project, which tours before making it to Hammersmith.
Among the talk of what this artistic policy can do for the Lyric Hammersmith and theatre in general, there is also the issue of what it can do for Farr. A young director, with plenty of time in his career to explore a multitude of avenues, the opportunity to mould, experiment, test and play has been given to him at a theatre that supports his choices. He intends to use that gift: "What I want to do at the Lyric [Hammersmith] is explore," he says. "For me this is a period about really pushing and exploring what theatre can do to tell great stories."
It is stories that grip Farr, stories that initially drew him to theatre and stories that capture his imagination even now. When he's not directing or running a theatre, Farr also finds time to write. Though he has written original work, most recently for the National's Connections seasons, a large proportion of his writing comes in the form of adaptation. Metamorphosis is one such work, while next year sees him turn his hand to the Ramayana. Again it is the story that lies behind Farr's enjoyment of adaptation. The tale is already there, he just has to shape it. The same theory applies to his writing for BBC1 spy series Spooks; the framework is there already, the characters have been introduced. The hard work is done and he just has fun building a plot around them.
"This is a period about really pushing and exploring what theatre can do"
It was not until he attended university that Farr really discovered his passion for theatre, until then film had captivated him much more. But while at university he formed the Talking Tongues Company with two actresses – one the now Hollywood superstar Rachel Weisz – and took their short shows to Edinburgh. Stephen Daldry, then artistic director of the Gate, saw one of the productions, and so began Farr's professional journey.
From the Gate, where Farr later became Artistic Director, to Bristol Old Vic, where he jointly ran the theatre with Simon Reade, Farr continued to turn heads, before ending, for the moment, at the Lyric Hammersmith. There he will continue for a while, but it is likely that this is still only the beginning for one of British theatre's most talented young directors. There may come a day when the curtain falls on Farr's career, but that day will only come when the passion disappears: "I don't want to do theatre if I'm tired in any way," Farr says, "because I think then the theatre gets tired. I find it really depressing when an audience deep down knows that what they're watching is a tired piece of work, but is kind, because people are kind, so they let it pass. I think that's fundamentally depressing.” If that day does come, and Farr, like the rest of us, is hoping it doesn't, he will be philosophical about what comes next. "There are lots of things to do in the world," he says. "I'm not addicted to the world of theatre; I'm addicted to what it can do to an audience."
Metamorphosis opens at the Lyric Hammersmith on 4 October, following previews from 29 September.