The Norman Conquests: Another Conquest (2008)This article was commissioned by the Friends of the Stephen Joseph Theatre for its Newsround magazine and was published following The Norman Conquests acclaimed revival at the New Vic, London, in 2008.
“I don’t think taking on The Norman Conquests is not a risk. It’s three different plays, which means it’s expensive. There are risks... So we’re not playing it safe.”
Kevin Spacey, 2006
9 May 2006
Three years after Alan Ayckbourn’s self-imposed moratorium on productions of his plays in the West End and the chances of seeing another major Ayckbourn production in London in the immediate future seem bleak.
Then without prelude or warning, Kevin Spacey, artistic director of The Old Vic announces his plans for the future: a pantomime by Stephen Fry, a collaboration with Trevor Nunn, two new plays and a revival of The Norman Conquests by Alan Ayckbourn.
Already the target of considerable vitriol following his controversial appointment at The Old Vic in 2003, Spacey’s announcement comes in the aftermath of the critically mauled flop Resurrection Blues and a commercial decision to pull the show early leaving the theatre dark. To some observers, the decision to stage Ayckbourn is an admission of defeat; pandering to audiences. But as Spacey rightly asserts, there is nothing safe about staging a trilogy of plays - no matter by whom - and The Norman Conquests has never been an easy production to mount….
The Norman Conquests originally came about almost by accident. In the aftermath of the premiere of Absurd Person Singular, a journalist asked Alan what was coming next. His slightly flippant reply was possibly a trilogy. When this was later printed, Alan’s half-serious idea became a tangible challenge and in a white heat of activity, he wrote it over two weeks in 1973. That summer, the trilogy enjoyed considerable success at The Library Theatre, Scarborough.
At which point, Alan put the plays into a drawer.
He had no illusions. The chances of a West End producer taking on a trilogy were minimal. True, Absurd Person Singular had opened in the West End in 1973 to rave reviews and producers were interested in the next Ayckbourn ‘hit’, but a trilogy?
Fending off suggestions that he release one, possibly two, of the plays, Alan’s interest was only sparked when it was suggested the trilogy be mounted in a fringe theatre where - if successful - it might then be picked up for the West End. It was still an enormous risk with no guarantee of success for, as its director Eric Thompson pointed out: “'Do you realise we could be the first people in history with three flops in a row, because if they don't like one, they sure as hell aren't going to like the others!'"
The production was, of course, an enormous success, far more so than anyone could have anticipated and the trilogy transferred to the Globe Theatre winning both the Evening Standard and Plays And Players awards for Best Play. It also led Alan in 1975 to have a record-breaking five plays running simultaneously in the West End with the trilogy, Absurd Person Singular and Absent Friends.
But it was by no means ever a safe bet.
Back in the present day and almost two years had passed without sign of The Norman Conquests at The Old Vic; conveniently forgotten? Too much of a risk? Or just waiting for the right moment?
In the meantime, the West End moratorium had been broken by Alan Strachan’s critical and commercially successful revival of Absurd Person Singular at the Garrick Theatre during the latter part of 2007. Rumours quickly spread on the theatre grapevine The Norman Conquests was now being fast-tracked at The Old Vic because of Absurd Person Singular’s success.
Confirmation of this was broken exclusively by the Evening Standard with an announcement practically two years to the day after the initial announcement: The Norman Conquests would be revived in September 2008 for a three month run, directed by Matthew Warchus and - the real surprise - it would be directed in the round.
If the original suggestion of mounting the trilogy had been a risk, then transforming one of London’s most famous venues into a theatre in the round raised the stakes considerably.
The significance of the decision to produce The Norman Conquests in the round is not easy to ignore. For the first time, an Ayckbourn work would be performed as intended in a major London theatre and whether successful or not, the decision meant The Old Vic production was at the very least going to attract attention.
The decision to produce the trilogy in the round at The Old Vic had largely been motivated by its director Matthew Warchus. Appointed as an Artistic Associate at The Old Vic at the same time as The Norman Conquests was announced, Matthew is a highly acclaimed and award winning director who has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, English National Opera and the Royal Opera House as well as extensively in the West End. None of which easily explains why he wanted to revive The Norman Conquests or was so passionate it should be staged in the round.
This, it transpired, was due to the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round. Matthew had visited Scarborough both as a student and whilst a director at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in the early 1990s and the theatre had had an impact on him: “I have always been excited by the magical effect that 'in-the-round' has on audiences, performers and design. Seeing Ayckbourn performed in this setting, compared to a conventional proscenium arch, can I think be revelatory.” His passion to direct the trilogy in the round, which might have been dismissed as a pipe-dream by some, was embraced by Kevin Spacey. Making it a reality was another matter.
The most obvious problem was financing such an ambitious and costly scheme. Sponsorship came from Michael and Dorothy Hintze, two passionate theatre supporters whose hedge fund CQS and their charity the Hintze Family Charitable Foundation financed the change of The Old Vic auditorium into The CQS Space. The undertaking was vast and posed a considerable technical and architectural challenge - with even Alan Ayckbourn offering advice on the design of the stage. The conversion began by creating an entirely new floor on a level with the existing stage, onto which everything would be built. Over five weeks, most of the seats were taken up and moved, the boxes were stripped, the theatre’s famed chandelier moved, new banks of seating - both stalls and circle - built and an entirely new lighting rig designed and raised. Perhaps more breath-taking was that all this could be taken down and stored for future productions in the round; which added to both the challenge and the cost.
According to The Old Vic, the transformation needed more than 250 sheets of plywood, 150 litres of grey paint, 25,672 screws and 5,000 bolts, 2.7km of stick timber, 17 tonnes of steel, 1,666 LED lights, 3,267m of cable and 960 square metres of carpet. The theatre estimates at least 400 litres of coffee and 300 bacon butties were consumed.
A lot of screws, steel and wood, but surprisingly few butties - all things considered.
In the rehearsal room, Matthew Warchus was working with a cast that as of May was not complete. There had apparently been difficulties in assembling a top calibre cast willing to commit for five months to such a large project. When the project was announced only Stephen Mangan (Norman), Jessica Hynes (Annie), Amelia Bulmore (Ruth) and Paul Ritter (Reg) were confirmed; Amanda Root (Sarah) and Ben Miles (Tom) would be relatively late additions. The decision to find the right actors though would pay dividends. Matthew Warchus knew he had to assemble an ensemble of strong actors for the trilogy to work and eschewed stars for relatively unknown actors to create this. The play was the ‘name’, not an unsuitable star.
The Norman Conquests opened at The Old Vic on 11 September 2008 with the press day scheduled for October 6. Initially each of the three plays - Table Manners, Living Together and Round And Round The Garden - were produced for three consecutive performances and then two consecutive performances, before going into full repertory. The schedule was designed to incorporate six ‘trilogy days’ where all three plays could be seen in the space of one day and six ‘trilogy weekends’ where the plays could be seen over a Friday and Saturday.
Surprisingly, there was little early word on the trilogy; the online theatre blogs which often competed to be the first to discuss the comparative failings and, occasionally, successes of the latest productions barely picking up on the trilogy. The print media showed a healthy interest but nothing overwhelming.
All this would change very quickly.
On 6 October, the months of hard work coalesced into three performances at 11am, 3pm and 7pm. The major critics were in force, Kevin Spacey a very visible presence throughout the day and a contingent from Scarborough: Alan and both Lady Ayckbourns, his sons, several people from the Stephen Joseph Theatre and judging by the SJT carrier bags, several of the SJT Friends. The theatre was revealed as an astonishing mix of old and new, an in the round theatre space fitting snugly into the auditorium of the former home of the National Theatre, so closely associated with Laurence Olivier. The most surprising sight was the equivalent of a curtain; nestled just above the entire stage, a model of the village with Annie’s house at the centre. As the lights went down, this was flown upwards and a clock projected on to the stage showing the passage of time between each scene; a very different approach to the round than one seen at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. From then on in, though, the production could have been every inch a Scarborough one. The simple set, clever lighting, ensemble cast and assured direction all pointing to the fact this was arguably one of the most accomplished non-Ayckbourn productions of his plays to have been seen in London.
A view shared as a standing ovation for the cast took place at the climax of Round And Round The Garden, which was extended to Alan Ayckbourn, brought on stage by Kevin Spacey. Surrounded by more than 1,000 people. It was an emotional and very much deserved tribute on a very public stage - slightly marred by Kevin Spacey knocking Alan over in his enthusiasm to embrace the playwright, which in retrospect somehow seems appropriately Ayckbournian.
The audience loved it, but what would the critics make of the revival?
The Norman Conquests had, in 1974, received great reviews and had shone a spotlight on a cast of - with the exception of Tom Courtenay - relative newcomers such as Michael Gambon, Felicity Kendal, Penelope Keith and - in the Greenwich production - Penelope Wilton. Great as these reviews were, they were about to be eclipsed.
The Times, Sunday Telegraph, Sunday Times, Daily Mail and Time Out awarded The Old Vic’s production five star reviews. The Sunday Telegraph declaring it “one of the all time great theatre events” with The Independent writing: “It’s heaven in triplicate.” Michael Billington, veteran Ayckbourn critic and writer, commended a production that stayed true not only to the author’s intentions, but brought to the fore what would become most closely associated with the author’s subsequent plays: “However much we laugh, the plays actually deal with loneliness, frustration, familial tensions and thwarted lust.”
With praise for the cast, direction, the round staging and The Old Vic’s commitment to presenting the play in the best possible way, the trilogy won arguably one of the best set of reviews of Alan Ayckbourn’s career. The accolades continued to come in weeks after the opening with The Observer declaring it - six weeks after the press day - “a theatrical event of international importance.”
Perhaps over-egging the pudding slightly, but a welcome plaudit.
The Norman Conquests ended on 20 December 2008 at The Old Vic, a risk turned good. In the future, there will perhaps be those who might cynically note there was little risk in staging one of Alan Ayckbourn’s most famous works. But given the demands of staging three plays and the standards The Old Vic set itself - not to mention an economic climate that no-one could have foreseen striking as the plays opened - this would be to do a disservice to all involved and the belief and passion in reviving the trilogy in London for the first time in 34 years.
And what of its effect? How things change in so relatively little time. Kevin Spacey, who was at the sharp end of the stick when the project was announced, has recently been lauded as beginning a “new golden age in theatre” and his decision to stage The Norman Conquests as a “clever and imaginative coup.” At the prestigious Evening Standard Awards, Spacey was given a special award for his work, one of the reasons given being the staging of The Norman Conquests. While the theatre award season has not yet begun, as of writing, the trilogy is up for five What’s On Stage 2009 Awards including the prestigious AKA Theatre Event Of The Year.
By December, it was reported producers were hoping to raise $2m to transfer the plays to Broadway and The Old Vic also announced it would follow the trilogy with two more plays in The CQS Space, keeping the round for another several months. Its reception practically guarantees the round will return to The Old Vic after that.
And what of Alan Ayckbourn? On the cusp of his 70th birthday and the 50th anniversary of his first play, The Square Cat, a production was staged and received in London with well deserved plaudits. Alan Ayckbourn’s plays are back in the London theatre-going consciousness again and receiving attention that has not previously been seen since his tenure at the National Theatre in 1987. It has led to a deserved West End production of Alan’s exceptional revival of Woman In Mind with Janie Dee as Susan and, apparently, there is much interest in producing the next Ayckbourn play for the West End; although the criteria has changed. The Norman Conquests has set the bar high and Alan is determined only proposals that can reach or surpass that bar will be even considered. Which is how it should be.
It seems only apt that as celebrations begin in this anniversary year, it is Alan’s most famous work that has once again conquered the West End.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.