Ayckbourn Talks: Meridian (2000)

This interview with Alan Ayckbourn was broadcast on the BBC World Service's Meridian on 8 February 2000.

With your new play, Virtual Reality, it suggests you’re fascinated by new technology, but is it fair to say you’re fearful of it as well. You’re both drawn to it and somewhat repelled by the implications of it?
Yes, I see the play as a cautionary tale. I love new technology and I’m the man who always buys the first of everything, usually the size of a large suitcase which turns out to be a mobile phone. With this play, what I was trying to do was to say, yes technology is wonderful and, in essence, what it does is improve communications between us. We have the miracles of mobile phones, we have the miracles of email, internet, fax and so on - all those things that should make communication between us faster and cleaner. But I think the danger is what we’re losing is person to person contact and the sharing of feelings, which don’t look too good on emails. We tend on emails to be terse, blunt and even have symbols show when we’re making a joke in case they get misinterpreted; it sorts of replaces the exclamation mark which was there in old-fashioned writing. So Virtual Reality was informed by that.

Also, I had seen, only recently, two young couples sitting at a restaurant in London, on mobile phones, simultaneously talking to four other people who were not there. They spent the entire evening doing this. They described to the people who they were talking to on the other end of the phone, who they were with, what they were eating, where they were, but it was a virtual meal. It didn’t exist for the four of them and I wondered why they had chosen to go out with the three other people in the first place. And this led me to thinking that Alex, the protagonist in the play, has a wife who is a very successful television presenter and always has something plugged into her ear, usually the comm linking to the producer in the gallery all the time - they’re miraculous people able to present programmes while someone is yelling instructions in the other ear! When she’s not on that, she’s on the phone and when she’s not on that, she’s listening to a walkman. There’s very few times when any communication is possible.

Alex has an unusually long speech for you in Virtual Reality. How much of that character speaking is Alan Ayckbourn speaking?
I think there’s quite a lot of me in that. I do feel occasionally the premise that we have no real centre to our lives. I think it started way back in the last decade with plays like A Small Family Business, when I then suggested that without a written moral code, which we seem to have abandoned, we could adjust what we wanted to suit ourselves; in that case it was a play about dishonesty which led to other things. But in this I think I’ve gone that little bit further and said that if we don’t have any prescribed right or wrong in our lives, it’s a very grey area. We sort of instinctively know certain things are wrong - most civilised people do - but where we stop and where we start and, indeed, who we are, without people telling us becomes increasingly difficult.

Is there a side of you when writing that constantly thinks, how am I going to do this? I’ve set myself a problem, how am I going to solve it?
With Virtual Reality, I needed to create a visual screen with the idea there’s a man that makes things called Viewdows which are electronic windows with views. But there is one particular programme he runs which is just a gardener pottering around a nice sort of English verdant garden and you can sit and watch him all year as he gardens. Well, I thought, how do you do this? You immediately think of video, of filming it and showing it and I was sitting there, puzzling over this and thinking of expensive video equipment but the fact is there’s something in me which is live theatre and I suddenly thought, ‘no, this is live theatre, what are you doing putting video on stage?' We’ve all come out from the video to presumably get away from the video! Of course, it was immediately obvious that we would try to create something theatrically live but which looks like a miraculous video. And actually three dimensional figures in gardens you can’t really improve if you put an ordinary person in a garden!

In Comic Potential, you had a real living person playing the android.
Yes, the trick with the android actress is that it’s a miraculous performance by Janie Dee but she does convince us she’s an android - even though the logical side of our brain is saying, she’s an actress - I’ve seen her in Carousel! But nonetheless Janie does do that. And then we follow her life through to her burgeoning humanity which begins to develop inside the robot which is a sort of double trick.

From a child I read masses of science-fiction and I’ve seen virtually all the sci-fi films that have ever been produced from the terrible ones to the likes of
Blade Runner and I’ve always wanted to try and get a flavour of this on stage. It is a wonderful way to tell fables that reflect today from a future world.

So I suppose a lot of my work is set in that and as one gets older, more distant from the younger generation, you find that when you write a young person, the terror is you start writing terribly creaky dialogue which you hope sounds vaguely ‘Hey, man’ which is dreadfully embarrassing. So what I tend to do is, craftily, say OK I can’t get into that world because that world is too far away from me, but what I will do is create a new playing field. So I wrote a play for children not long ago called
Gizmo and I thought I can’t write for them - I vaguely remember what I was like at that age but it was a long time ago as I was a post war child - so I wrote a play about a future world where none of us knew the rules and then I was able to reinvent them. ‘Cheat,’ they cry, but it made it possible for me to communicate with them on a different level.

Where did the idea for House & Garden begin?
I’d always wanted to write two plays happening simultaneously. I had a fascination with the question I suppose many audiences must have asked themselves when they see any play, I wonder what happened when a character went off. And I started that years ago when I wrote The Norman Conquests, which were three plays with three different viewpoints, but none of them would actually have run simultaneously; they looked as if they could but in fact the time was bent quite a lot.

We moved in 1996 into the new
Stephen Joseph Theatre which boasted for the first time two auditorium and so I thought this might be the moment in the next year or two to write my double play; to actually write a play where actors move during the action from one auditorium to the other. So it starts with a man saying, ‘I’m just taking the dog for a walk, darling’ standing in the French windows of his country house and then off he goes and you hear the dog barking off into the distance and then in the other theatre, in The Round, you hear the dog approaching and then this man appears saying, ‘come back here, come back here’ and so you get the feeling of movement between the two auditorium. What I wasn’t sure of course was what the audience would make of it. Because, as far as they were concerned, they were sitting in one auditorium watching one play. So what we did was we created a third space, which was the foyer, where the audience had to exit and mingle. So I wrote a play about a garden fete in this country house and the garden fete took place in the foyer, so the audience came out of the two auditoria and mixed and were buying jams and playing silly games and it was very exciting and the whole evening was like an event.

What I’m always trying to do is find ways of emphasising that theatre is alive event, it links back to
Virtual Reality. Most of the things we watch and listen to these days have been recorded quite a long time ago. You watch a movie that was made months and months ago, maybe years, and all the decisions are made before you’re even aware of the movie itself. With theatre there is a real sense that the audience can affect a performance. Anyone who’s been to see a show or performed in a play for more than one night will know the vast difference of chemistry that’s caused by two groups of people (an audience and an actor getting together in the same room). House & Garden is just a sort of bigger scale of that. I suppose the moment in House & Garden that was for me the most exciting - and I think the audience, funnily enough - was the curtain call when both plays, by some miracle, used to come down within about five seconds of each other and this was due to some very astute stage managing. Half the actors would bow in one auditorium and half in the other and then they would literally race past each other between the auditoria, so by the end of the evening everyone had had a bow in both theatres. That was the moment when the audience went, ‘hang on there’s more to this…’

Your plays frequently deal with adultery, are you moralistic in the plays?
I think in a sense I am, I like to think I am. I’m not saying, ‘smite the adulterer’, but I do think that occasionally we give in - Alex in Virtual Reality is somewhat different because he just allows himself to get into that situation - it’s just as much as if he seduced the girl - but in fact she more or less manoeuvres him and he just allows himself to drift in neutral. He lives his life in neutral and anyone who’s passing and gives him a shove, he goes 100 yards down a road he probably didn’t intend to go down. But it is true, it reflects his passing affair with this actress, who’s much younger than him and in the end completely unsuited - they’re never going to get it together, as they say but what it does is it has the effect of a house of cards. The first thing is his wife, who thinks of herself as a modern women in an open relationship, is completely knocked sideways, but then the domino effect happens and his friend’s marriage then comes under strain. Most of us, if we live long enough, have friends who are couples who appear to be completely solid and there for us and occasionally one of them, like a star, explodes and two people who were one are suddenly two and not only that, they’re probably not speaking to each other and if you want to see them you have to carefully edit your own dialogue not to include the recently estranged partner in the conversation otherwise thunder clouds form. And it becomes extremely disturbing to your own relationship because you can’t help looking at what you are and saying, ‘could we be under that sort of strain because we just assumed they were there for us forever, like our parents.’ It reflects the theme I think, that we tend to grab safe permanencies in our lives and say, ‘they’re there, John and Mary, are always there for us, they’ve always been there for us and always will be and we’ll have them around for supper for the fifth time this year.’ Suddenly, it isn’t it’s John and Elspeth and Mary and Jim and that doesn’t work as half of us doesn’t really like Jim very much and so we want to get her round and not Jim. In a funny way that’s quite amusing, the real irony is that we sort of resent this - how dare they do this to us!

You were once described you as an instinctive feminist, would you buy that description or not?
I think I was brought up amongst women, I was a single parent family as it were and my mother looked after me. I suppose I got quite a lot of female propaganda from an early age and she was also the bread-winner of the family. She wrote short stories and there was very little male presence in my formative years. My father came occasionally and I was very fond of him but I didn’t see enough of him to form a real bond. I suppose my mother’s occasional railings against the male sex was probably quite strong propaganda and I began to think maybe I got born wrong! But I am very sympathetic and I'm interested in the journey women have made during my lifetime from the trapped presence in the house as a housewife with less power and then slowly the empowerment of them. The women I deal with in Virtual Reality are professional women under enormous pressure and I think often that biologically, because they are the bearer of children and have extraordinary biological clocks, that the pressure on them in professional life - certainly in the top levels of media - is extremely high and must be incredibly difficult to cope with sometimes. I do see women coping wonderfully but I do see often in my life, signs of fraying, just because of what they’re doing - they’re pioneering in a way.

How much of your productivity has been made possible by running your own theatre?
You can only help a playwright if the guarentee of production is there. Its very interesting that David Hare, for instance, who wrote a lot of plays in the last decade was probably helped a great deal by the fact that his permanent director, as it were, Richard Eyre was running the National Theatre, so David had an unspoken guarentee that plays would be produced. I think for me, of course, I have the great benefit that I’m the Artistic Director of the SJT so I tend to mark a little space every year for my play. I’ve just made a new space for there next one although not a letter has been written yet!

I don’t like making predictions though, I’ve just past my 60th birthday and every time you finish a play, you think, is that it? I mean I really have - to use a cricketing term - been out at the crease a very long time. Batting away here while most dramatists tuck their bat under their arm after about eight or nine plays. So I’ve been very lucky - I’m not suggesting that for a moment I’ve written 56 masterpieces, but I’ve at least been allowed to mount 56 plays and develop from play to play. Even the poor plays, which obviously one doesn’t set out to write, but in retrospect you think well that was a bit dodgy compared to the ones either side of it. But the ones either side of it could only have happened because that poor play was there as a step to the next play and I think the worst thing that can happen for a dramatist is just to find they’re fishing around for two years just trying to get their new play on, which will then inform the next one and there isn’t a progression. It’s quite subtle between one play and the next.

How often do you get the chance to see your plays in other cultures from China to Iceland? if so, do you recognise the plays where you see them?
I have seen them, not often. I went to Paris to see Communicating Doors, which I think was probably as recent as I’ve been. There are distortions - a lot of my plays are done in Germany and I was speaking to a german professor, Albert Glaap, who translates my plays, I said, ‘what’s the difference?’ and he said the only difference was you have the benefit of the English language which is enormous when you add America. The German language is a much smaller language, so the problem with translation is to find the variety that you naturally find in an English play without the sort of repetition and the same word popping up again. And the French is similar, it’s not a huge language, so I think the language occasionally suffers but fortunately I don’t write too many verbal jokes. That really hangs them out because the translators try looking for equivalent for puns which - fortunately - I’m not awfully into, so that’s lucky. What the best translators have done is to get to the core of the characters, which is where the plays come from, the people. And fortunately - and maybe in the case of my plays, unfortunately - we all seem to be rather similar the world over, we all seem to suffer from the same problems. Whatever language you speak, inevitably some men don’t get on with some women or some women don’t get one with other women etc etc. Parents and children have the same problem relating and going through the same problems. I tend to be the Birth, Marriage, Death column of drama! Perhaps I’m recognised for some of the social things, it’s what they say and who they are that’s important.

Now you’re 60, is your life going to change or do you hope to go on writing, directing, running a theatre until you’re 90?
I’d love to go on running the SJT for as long as I’m able and as long as the board wants! I am actually employed, it’s not my theatre, I’m employed by a board of trustees who might one day say, ‘well, I think it’s time to be put out to grass, old bean.’ I think what I’m doing is I’m just adjusting my life as I think 60 was quite significant in the following way. You tend to look and say, what is it that I do that is unique to me as opposed to the things that other people could do. And one of the things that I obviously do is writing my own plays, so I shall continue to write and put that at the top of my priorities. Second thing, is to direct them because the two are now so symbiotic that it’s almost impossible to say where the directing starts and ends and where the writing starts and ends, so I shall do that. What I’m tending to do is bring in more directors to do the other half / three quarters of the work this theatre does which is of course new work by other writers. I think I now don’t quite have the energy I used to for launching into someone else’s play and giving them my full and undivided attention in trying to get their play to work as a director. So I’m not going to possibly direct much other work particularly other new work. I may do the odd classic just occasionally, it’s just lovely to do that - I did A Dolls House a few months ago and it’s just wonderful to spend a few hours with Mr Isben rather than myself and say, ‘gosh, he’s a good dramatist.’ I mean I went into A Doll’s House thinking it’s a good play and came out realising what a great play it was and how all the things that were said in it were all the things I’d been trying to say plus a few I’d never thought of saying. So it was exciting and I think you need that outing into somebody else, somebody you really rate. The nearest and best way to get to a dramatist is to direct them.

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