Things We Do For Love (2014)Alan Ayckbourn’s Things We Do For Love premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in 1997 and is one of his few plays written specifically for end-stage performance. Here he talks about his inspiration for the play, its success and his thoughts on its revival by Bath Theatre Royal in 2014.
Simon Murgatroyd: It’s been almost 20 years since you wrote Things We Do For Love, what are your thoughts on the play now?
Alan Ayckbourn: I’ve always been quite fond of it; I think it’s rather a funny play, but which gets quite dark. I think the theme amuses me. It’s almost an anti-love play really in that a passionate love affair starts between two people which destroys all around them. It’s a theme I’d always wanted to do because it’s about the fallout from love - and for love also read sexual desire.
It’s quite a harsh perspective of love.
I think love creates an amnesty for normal civilised behaviour really in that you can do things in the name of love that would you never do in the name of anything else; including betraying friends, lying and cheating. In some cases, even becoming physically aggressive. It’s like the animal in us is released. I’ve seen the results of people in various throes of a passionate relationship and it is like you take leave of your sanity really. It is quite extraordinary.
I’m always amazed that some of the worst behaviour is propagated by people who are in love. I think we often save the best of ourselves, but also the worst of ourselves for the ones we fall in love with.
For many people, elements of the play will be familiar - sometimes painfully so - do you think that is part of its appeal?
Yes, it’s about love and I think it appeals to people who may have been around the block - which obviously a lot of my audience has. People who have been in and out of love are going to flinch, while it may not mean much to the lucky minority who got married at 18, and have never had a cross word with each other.
I think it also appeals because it came back to the domestic for me. I do occasionally return to what I call the basics; the personal relationship plays. Things We Do For Love is all about personal relationships, whereas when we get to the likes of A Small Family Business - although they are still personal relationships there - the themes are slightly broader.
The domesticity is typified by the set, a three storey house centred on a single woman’s exemplary flat with just a few feet of the floors above and below visible. The set is practically a fifth character and essential to the play, what inspired it?
As with a lot of my plays, it was inspired by a movie - In The Line Of Fire starring Clint Eastwood. There is a scene where he and a fellow CIA agent decide to go to bed together and the camera chooses to shoot them from the ankle downwards, so all you see is their feet going towards the bed. It’s a wonderful scene, they start removing all their equipment, belts, CS canisters and guns, holsters and handcuffs clatter down and then clothing follows. And then we follow the feet onto the bed and just as they’re about to get down to business, a phone rings and the agent says, ‘They want us back.’ There’s a pause and Clint says: “Oh my God, I suppose we’ve got to put it all back on again!” That’s the end of the scene and it’s very, very funny. And I thought, I’d love to do a play where you just see the feet! The legs say so much.
So that’s the floor on top of the main flat, what about the action beneath the flat?
Then I thought I’d also like to see a play where you only see the tops of people’s heads, but if you only see the top of people’s heads, they must live in a ridiculously low room! Then it all came together, as I thought what if a man was painting the ceiling in the room below? You’d see quite a lot of heads then. And then I got amused by the idea of a man painting just inches away from his subject in the room above him. It just amused me that walls and floors create thin barriers between us and what we do on one side is not apparent to people on the other side. Two people make love upstairs and a person can be watching television inches below them and be completely unaware of what’s happening -aside from perhaps odd bits of plaster falling down! That is the nature of the play, the proximity between people.
Between these glimpses of head and feet, we have the main flat, what was the inspiration there?
It’s a very small flat and that is the great fun of it. It’s a woman’s flat, a woman who has lived on her own and who is a tidy, precise and exact woman. One has been into these flats and it is like they are man-free zones; there is nothing capable of bearing a man’s weight, let alone a decent sized mug of tea. Everything is so small, tiny and beautifully set and you just stand there wondering where to sit.
The upright chair in the flat was inspired by chairs my wife owns. A designer once said these are not meant to be sat on, to which I said, ‘What’s the damned point of them then?’ So I coined the phrase 'chornament'. It amuses me that there are chairs in the room inviting to be sat on, but that are not intended to be sat on. They’re much too delicate.
It’s quite unusual then as it’s one of the few plays you’ve written specifically for end-stage performance. What was the reason for that?
One of the reasons for writing it was when the Stephen Joseph Theatre opened in Scarborough in 1996, for the first year I worked exclusively in The Round and I only got to see the results of the work in its second space, the end-stage McCarthy. I wanted to underline my belief in its equal importance in the building - as I was very worried The McCarthy would become known as just our ‘studio' space - but it also intrigued me to write something for The McCarthy as it's an unusual space - and I hadn't written for an end-stage since A Small Family Business at the National Theatre in 1987.
So Things We Do For Love takes full advantage of the end stage format. The play is like a doll’s house and could never be performed in-the-round for which most of my plays are written for.
You’re now in your 55th year as a playwright and have recently completed your 78th play Roundelay, has the creative process changed over the years?
Not really, it’s just slightly slower now. I try always to start with a clean sheet. Nowadays, one of the interests for me as a writer is to surprise and intrigue the audience through the way you tell the story, as much as the story itself.
Do you worry whether you’ll find inspiration for the next play?
Always. Every time I finish the new one, panic sets in a fews days later and I run on empty for a short time. But then, hopefully, ideas begin to present themselves and the whole process begins again.
Who would you say has influenced you the most as a writer?
I began writing at an interesting time for British theatre. It was the end of the old order, from Noël Coward, Terence Rattigan, etc. backwards and, on the threshold of the new order, Harold Pinter, John Osborne and co. onwards. So at the start practically everyone influenced me. Plus a whole load of back and white - as well as silent - films.
And finally, 78 plays on, is it getting harder to find new stories to tell?
All stories, I believe, have been told before. The art is in the re-telling.
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