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INTERVIEW: RICHARD O’BRIEN, The Rocky Horror Show – November 2017

| 28 November 2017 | Reply

INTERVIEW: RICHARD O’BRIEN, The Rocky Horror Show – November 2017
By Shane Pinnegar

Perenial favourite The Rocky Horror Show returns to Perth’s Crown Theatre from 17 February, 2018 for another season of antici………………….. PATION. Again starring Craig MacLachlan as everyone’s favourite transvestite transexual from Transylvania, Frank n’ Furter, excitingly, this season will also see the show’s creator Richard O’Brien co-starring as The Narrator. 

Fresh off the plane from his adopted homeland of New Zealand, Richard settles in for a convivial chat with long-time fan SHANE PINNEGAR, and quickly reveals he’s never visited our fair state.


“I’m looking forward to it, because I’ve never been to Western Australia,” he says, surprisingly consider the number of times The Rocky Horror Show has run here since its 1973 debut in London’s West End. “I’ve heard about it over the years, of course. I’ve been online and looked at the architecture and the various views of the city, and it looks lovely.”


Famous not only for penning the show, O’Brien also played Furter’s not-so-faithful henchman Riff Raff in the 1975 movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show. 75 now, he finds The Narrator a more suitable role and looks forward to having a lot of fun with it.


“It’s a nice role for me to play, as the author,” he explains. “Once you start to spar with an audience, the timing of the audience isn’t that good… I can come out as the author, and it’s a different connection. ‘I’m going to take you on a strange journey…’ it’s literally kind of like I’m the storyteller and a very friendly kind of storyteller. ‘Sit down, make yourselves comfortable and I’ll take you on a very strange journey.’


“I’m afforded a different relationship with the audience. I get respect as the author and I’m allowed to be a little bit more school teacherly from time to time with them.”


Having played both Riff Raff and The Narrator, I’m interested in which role O’Brien most related to whilst writing the show.


“I thought I would like to play Eddie,” he says. “I’d just get out of a fridge and sing one rock and roll song, get back in the fridge, and then it would all be over. If the audience didn’t like this musical journey that I’d written, then I’d be offstage – everybody else would be up there getting the rotten tomatoes!

But, of course, when push came to shove, there was no way we were going to have, in a fringe theatre event, just have one actor come and sing one song and then be off for the rest of the evening. So we doubled up Eddie and Dr Scott [for the stage] – they were uncle and nephew, anyway. 


“Then, Jim Sharman [director of the film version The Rocky Horror Picture Show] said to me, ‘I want you to play Riff Raff.’ I thought, if I hadn’t written the show – if I was at home and Jim Sharman phoned me up and said, ‘I’ve got a role for you to play in this musical film,’ I’d say, ‘tell me when, your judgement would be good enough for me.’

“[And] it was the right role for me to play,” he continues gleefully. “I was able to instil a deviousness to the character, a jealousy of Frank’s beauty and his charisma. A jealousy that Frank was taking that all the applause for building the man when [Riff Raff] did all the hard work. That unstated, incestuous relationship with the sister. All that subtext, I was able to build up, which, perhaps, another actor who wasn’t that clear with the script and the understanding of theatre may not have got.”


Being able to act alongside Craig McLachlan as Frank n’ Furter is a treat, says O’Brien.


“Craig is wonderful,” he gushes adoringly. “He leaves a wake of happy people behind him as he passes through life. Delightful. He’s a caring man, he’s funny beyond belief, he’s a complete and utter show off, and it all combines in a glorious performance.”


When joining an ensemble cast as an actor, is it difficult to remove yourself from the mindset of being ‘the creator,’ in order to take direction?


“Yes, actually,” O’Brien insists. “Yes, you have to. You can’t grandstand. We’ve all worked with people who grandstand and it doesn’t do the production any good… even if it’s in an office with a lot of people and there’s one person playing primadonna, it’s not a happy atmosphere, so you don’t want that.”


A smash hit at once, The Rocky Horror Show has been staged in dozens of countries around the world, despite the story’s promiscuity, transvestitism, a subtle incestuous relationship and other risqué behaviour. I wonder if seeing it endure in different languages and cultures has been an interesting phenomenom for its creator.


“I think it’s wonderful,” he gushes. “I mean, it works very well in repressed societies. It allows a bit of freedom and it’s a very healthy freedom of expression. Sex, of course, is a reaffirmation of the life force. It’s very interesting now, in Australia, the same sex marriage issue that’s up before you all. Recreational sex is [considered by some as] deviant because it denies the procreational imperative, but it’s just a wonderful – we’re all at it. The whole world is at it! Millions and millions of people are having recreational sex and enjoying it! 

“I find that people who take the moral high ground generally have no right to be there. They take the helicopter, they haven’t climbed through the foothills to get there – they just deposit themselves there,” he says, wittily. “Also, you see, I’m a Darwinist. I don’t understand why the delusional are able to make laws for the rational. It makes no sense.”

It’s those who declare themselves the arbiters of right and wrong on that moral high ground who have decried the show’s existence and right to be enjoyed. O’Brien agrees that it has been, at times, bewildering.


“You may or may not know, they built a statue of Riff Raff in Hamilton,” he explains, referencing the New Zealand town near where he lived in Tauranga with his parents between the ages of ten and twenty two, “where I used to go and see the late night double features. The theater’s been pulled down, but there’s a lovely statue of Riff Raff there with a ray gun. When that was going up, the hue and cry, and the letters to the paper… The arguments were intellectually impoverished, [but] the inference was that if a small child were to walk by, they’d be influenced by it and become a transvestite!”


That kinky, S&M edge is undoubtedly one of the keys to The Rocky Horror Show’s success, but not even its creator could have imagined that this piece of underground art would have become so popular as to actively subvert the mainstream.


“It’s as much surprise to me as it is to anybody else, how that’s happened, truthfully,” he says in awe. “How it’s impinged on people’s lives and touched a nerve somewhere… it’s very gratifying from the point of view that I had no intentions of making other people’s lives easier, but the show has done that. I have, over the past 45 years, received many, many letters from people who’ve said, ‘I’m so grateful that the show came into my life, because it made me realise that I wasn’t alone and made me be able to celebrate who I am, rather than be disadvantaged by my own sexuality.’”


Crucially, The Rocky Horror Show appeals not just to those with non-traditional views of gender, but to us all. It remains as close to perfect as a piece of art can be – from the music, to the lyrics, the dialogue, sets and storyline. It all just works. O’Brien has a shot at summarising its appeal.


“It’s a fairy tale – it’s babes in the wood, Hansel and Gretel – Brad and Janet. The wicked old lady, the witch in the gingerbread house is, of course, Frank n’ furter and the old, dark house is the castle. As such, it never fails to resonate because it’s a story that’s timeless – a rite of passage story. It’s so easy to follow.

“Another great thing about the show,” he continues humbly, “and it may sound as if I’m blowing my own trumpet, I don’t mean to – is that all the characters come on stage at the right time and all the songs fall at the right time. You can’t see the midnight oil being spent. It unfolds itself in a very easy, linear fashion, and is enjoyable. You don’t have to work your brain too hard – you just sit back and let it wash over you with enjoyment!”
The Rocky Horror Show at Crown Theatre from 17 February, 2018

Category: Interviews

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