Alan Ayckbourn: The Website Interview 2012This interview took place between Alan Ayckbourn and his archivist Simon Murgatroyd on 14 February 2012 and this is the first time the entire interview has been published; parts of it formed the basis for syndicated interviews for Alan Ayckbourn's two 2012 productions at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. The interview looks at his plays Surprises and his 40th anniversary revival of Absurd Person Singular and Neighbourhood Watch as well as his views on the success of Neighbourhood Watch, the West End revival of Absent Friends and the state of regional theatre in the UK following the Government austerity cuts.
Alan Ayckbourn's Official Website: 2012 Interview
Simon Murgatroyd: Your latest play is called Surprises, tell us about it.
Alan Ayckbourn: It’s a play with its head in the future, but with its heart in the past. It’s sci-fi, but sci-fi used as an allegory - as most good sci-fi is - to reflect what’s happening today and the issues I’ve picked up on recently. It’s a bit like Neighbourhood Watch picking up on current issues, except this time - to out it in a nutshell - it’s about what might happen with longevity.
I’ve been reading a lot of articles recently about the strain the increasing elderly population is going to put on the National Health Service. The chances of people living longer and longer as the centuries go by are certainly quite interesting dramatically and increasingly plausible; they can replace most of you now - I think the brain will be the last thing they will be able to replace - but practically everything else is fast becoming a spare part. I have one character in the play who’s 120 years old and says, ‘I’ve just seen my doctor for a check up and he says if I take good care of myself, I probably have another good 60 years.’ He’s already retired twice and really had several lifetimes really and doesn’t know what to do next. If we’re not able to plan our lives for the long term, we are going to be in that situation, which I think is quite interesting.
The play also asks what happens to relationships when this longevity happens. Most relationships - never mid marriages - are based on a life expectancy of, what, three score years and ten years probably. So what happens when both of you live to twice that age? Can you sustain that relationship? A lot of people find it hard to sustain a marriage at a normal length of 20, 30 or 40 years. But certainly if we’re going to potentially have relationships going on for 100 years, maybe it’s becomes difficult to sustain. Maybe some people will waver slightly: ‘I promised this man my life, but I don’t have to stay with him all that time.’ All these questions are being asked.
It’s also involves a bit of a running interest about mechanical life and android existence. They are to all intents and purposes immortal, so how would they cope with immortality? Conjecturing about the future has always been fun and it felt like the right time to be doing it again. Right from Henceforward... to Comic Potential and even slightly in Communicating Doors, I’ve used sci-fi themes but hopefully, in a user-friendly way. Surprises is essentially several love stories but love stories that have a spin on them, a sci-fi slant.
It also raises the issues of haves and have nots? The implication being you’ll soon be able to live for a couple of centuries, providing you have the money.
Oh yes. I think that I touched upon it in Neighbourhood Watch and Henceforward... with the idea of the gated community where people barricade themselves in against the undesirable elements of outside world. Surprises is set in the world of the seriously successful, but there is a sense in it of a whole class that aren’t mentioned. I think the division between rich and poor is likely to grow in the long term; that the division of wealth will get increasingly lop-sided. There’s no easy solution though, all that happens when you try and stop that is other people just get the wealth - a different class of people. So you try and change the system so the landed aristocracy no longer inherit all the wealth, but sure as hell it doesn’t stop some aristocratic banker from inheriting it or, indeed, the very successful realms of slightly extreme showbusiness also cleaning it all up. Realistically, once you have a pot and you leave several people in a room to split it up, someone wil come out with more of it than the rest.
The underclass idea is also touched upon with the solution of using mechanical life to take over the unacceptable job, which is not going to work very well!
Like several of your other plays, such as Communicating Doors and Whenever, there’s a time-travel element in Surprises, but unlike those plays, it seems to offer no solutions as technology is only as infalliable as those who use it are, which is to say, not at all.
Isn’t that always the case, whatever happens! We say, ‘this is such a wonderful invention!’ and then 20 years later, we think, why the hell did we invent that? Our ability to misuse an invention like time-travel is enormous. It’s terribly dangerous as once you try to start altering the past to alter the present, you’re bound to get into all sorts of trouble, because presumably it’s open to all sorts of unscrupulous people from those trying to predict the Grand National winner onwards. So time travel is no solution to problems for my characters and as one of the characters says, ‘it spoils the surprise of life’ and life is intended to be a surprise.
Who knows whether time travel is possible - and I think a corner is beginning to be turned on this, as there’s always been resistance to the idea of it - but scientists are beginning to say if we do have faster than light particles, maybe time-travel is possible. The biggest problem with that though is, why haven’t we seen any from the future? But maybe in 700 years time, someone invents time travel but then thinks this time isn’t worth visiting! Maybe they say, ‘Not the 2000s! Let’s go back to the good old 1940s, that’s really interesting!’
I also like the idea of Ridley Scott’s worlds where everything is a bit off - things come off the technology and break. These worlds which are slightly battered and everything is not human proof. The fact is our machines are affectionately created with the best of intentions, but then we get hands on them....
The play also touches upon the idea of avatars and social networking and how the anonymity of the internet / cyberspace allows us to pretend to be different to who we really are?
We can pretend to be someone different when we’re behind a computer and never likely to meet the other person. But I actually think it’s an extension of what we do in real live. We reach an age where we leave our parents and grow a little independent, then we meet someone we rather want to impress and we’re free to create a personality for them. Unfortunately, we’re not very good at it and it tends to slip away. The fatal thing to do is to take him or her back to meet your parents, who are completely in the know about who you really are and treat you like you used to be! Parents are like some terrible recording machine going, ‘ah-ha here’s a picture of when you were 15 and spotty and not as cool as you now appear to be! Oh and here’s one with your teeth in braces, painfully shy and not at all the elegant 22 year old now standing in the room.” We do try and reinvent ourselves constantly and the saddest picture is watching people moving from partner to partner, divorcing the existing wife (it seems to be particularly men), who then then try to reinvent themselves as new men, different men, young men to impress younger women. And it goes on and on and they finish up - possibly by accident - marrying the same woman again and again! They keep repeating themselves and they get into a spiral. Thank God there is a limit to our lifespans or these men would be there 10 or 20 women along making the same mistakes!
It’s only an extension of this then to reinventing yourself online, changing your sex, race, colour, physical attributes and becoming something ridiculous. There’s a woman in Act 2 who says, ‘I’ve been out with deep sea divers and space men.’ You think how the hell does a secretary in an office do that? And then you realise she’s meeting a man from another office in cyberspace, who’s being all these rather exotic things and he think he’s going out with an exotic dancer, not a secretary! It’s harmless in a way, they have cybersex and stand in a cyber-bar with a created barman who’s there to monitor conversations and keep it on the straight and narrow, ready to dissolve the programme if the people break the rules.
What’s obvious is that as much as Neighbourhood Watch was a shift in direction from Life Of Riley before it, this again takes a totally different direction to Neighbourhood Watch.
Hopefully that’s true, because I do leave a year between writing the plays, so I hope I don’t carry too many characters or themes from the previous play forward from the last play to the current play.
Surprises is very different to Neighbourhood Watch though and, constructionally, it’s quite interesting. I’m very interested in structure and Surprises starts in an apparently straight-forward linear story with a girl in a bedroom talking to a bloke. That then loops into a parallel story, which then loops back bringing all the stories and characters together. So this is not a flat narrative, but one which gathers itself in and gathers itself in again. It’s running in repertory with a revival of Absurd Person Singular and uses the structure of that play to run against it. Not only has Surprises got the same cast size - although there is some doubling just to make it slightly different - but it’s also got a three act structure, which is very rare. In fact, I haven’t used a three act structure since I wrote Absurd Person Singular in 1972.
Was it restrictive having a company of six actors imposed in you by virtue of it running in repertory with Absurd Person Singular?
I played around with the idea of six actors for a long time, but with a three act structure you can hopefully double up without too much difficulty. I did have a draft idea, which I quickly got rid of, that I’d write it in five acts and Surprises could have been a second Confusions with five different linked one act plays, but I only had three stories really: the girl and the husband, the secretary and the online affair and the lawyer and an android janitor. So those were the three stories I worked with. I did briefly think I could maybe revisit that Confusions structure, but I realised that it didn’t interest me as there’s not enough space for the characters. So Surprises is really three one act plays all interwoven, which structurally makes it quite interesting.
As you’ve noted, Surprises is running in repertory with Absurd Person Singular, what led to the decision to revive the play?
It was Chris Monks [Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre] who suggested it. It’s the next logical one to revive in the canon; a few years ago I did Relatively Speaking and then more recently I did How The Other Half Loves. So it’s the next big one really.
Like a lot of my stuff, it is of its time, but it also has a timeless quality to it because although the characters are very definitely rooted in the period and mustn’t ever be moved from there, I think - nonetheless - that human nature hasn’t changed that much over time. It is a story about the worm turning and the underdog becoming the overdog and the two overdogs from the three couples ending up dancing - literally by the end - to his tune. It’s a fable that still exists with people climbing and falling through the social ladder.
Absurd Person Singular also has some of my more vigorous writing. It’s the one I remember that when we were first in rehearsal, I realised we were running into a very dark tunnel in the third act; many people have pointed out that the third act isn’t as funny as the second and I’ve always said, ‘no, it isn’t.’ Although it’s almost accidentally intentional. I realised as soon as I’d written it and seen it on stage, that those final ten minutes are very bone-chilling and I’d felt I’d taken another step forward as a writer. There are plays where you feel you’ve stepped forward and there are plays where you have just stepped sideways - hopefully not backwards! I think the juxtaposition of dark and light in Absurd Person Singular is probably the most interesting I had done to that date. It’s an interesting play for me and one worth coming back to again because when I originally did it, I was not quite sure it would work, so I think - in my mind - that in the original production I tended to compromise slightly on it because I thought, ‘gosh this is going to be impossible for the audience to watch.’ But one has to just grab it and do it as it is, just as Jeremy Herrin’s recent production of Absent Friends in London doesn’t compromise at all.
As I always preach and sometimes fail to practice in my new work, the more seriously you treat the play in rehearsal, the more laughter you get in performance. Which is almost a mantra that I tire of saying, but the fact is that sometimes when one has a totally new play, it’s very hard to tell people to hold onto the serious. I have a feeling that although I’ll be able to do that with Absurd Person Singular, maybe when it gets to Surprises, I’ll really need to keep my bottle because it is ground I have not trodden before. The surprise is how different it is to Absurd Person Singular, it’s another writer in another world.
Famously, Absurd Person Singular is your first ‘off-stage play’, but it didn’t begin that way, did it?
The original intention was to set it in the sitting rooms and to make it much more conventional. The decision to move it to the kitchen, I once described it as my sewing machine moment: the man who invented the sewing machine worked on it for ages and, of course, decided to put the hole at the bottom of the needle rather than the top, which was a brilliant idea and from then on worked perfectly. That lateral thinking is what makes the idea work. In the case of the kitchens, it’s not just about the physical location but also how all sorts of other things occur because you have put the audience ‘off-stage’. There are moments in the first act when the script asks for the kitchen to be totally empty and all the action is happening in the wings. But then emergencies break out and people rush out of the party itself, which is all happening beyond our gaze, and as we go on we become slightly grateful the author has put us here in the kitchen as it’s not much of a party to actually be at!
When I wrote it, it was still relatively recent to me being an actor and I always loved those plays where people came on relating some fantastic event and you could feel the audience saying, ;why the hell weren't we there?’ There are some plays which just don’t put you in the right place at the right time and you miss everything! One of the greats arts of playwriting is gathering you and your audience to be in the right place at the right time for the narrative. In a good play, all the salient points of the narrative are covered by your presence. In a bad play, you’re always just missing these points or they’re never quite happening and you have that feeling of missing the action. So the transfer to the kitchen, which seems like a reverse of that by moving the audience into the off-stage position, allows us to be in the privileged position of being offstage for the party where all the action is. For the second and third acts, we then find ourselves in the kitchen because either everyone finds themselves trapped in the kitchen due to a rather large dog or, in the last scene, because it’s the only room in the house with any warmth from this one bar electric firer.
The kitchen also offers a good chance to make social comment on the nature of your characters. If, as Delia said several plays later in Bedroom Farce, you can tell a lot about people by their bedrooms, you can also tell an awful lot from their kitchens. So there are three very different kitchens with very different uses starting with the Hopcroft’s shiny new ships’ bridge of a kitchen, then the architect’s shabby living room of a kitchen and then the bleak shell of the final kitchen, the victorian kitchen which has fallen into disrepute, reflecting the married lives of its owners.
Do you think the play is still relevant in what it says today?
It’s one of my socio-economic plays and I think at the time what interested me about the Hopcrofts at the time is still relevant today. The Hopcrofts are the underdogs and are treated rather shabbily by the other couples. In the first act, they’re rather dismissed which is fatal if you’re one of the other couples!
I always felt the other four characters had flaws, if you could call them flaws, in that they were human and had a humanity about them. The Hopcrofts are much more amoral, they have no more scruples whatsoever and their main aim is just to make it in the world. Quite often you read interviews with very successful people about how they started and they say they never took their eye of the ball, never for a minute. They did quite a lot of - you suspect - quite ruthless things on the way up including cutting people out or rather ruthlessly dismissing people because they weren’t serving their purpose. Nonetheless, what they say is, ‘if you want it, go get it’. So the question is, why can’t the rest of us go get it? Well maybe, it’s because in the end it’s not worth the gamble. When I look back on the mercifully few - if any at all - people I’ve shouldered out of the way compared to what I would have to have done if I had been a Hopcroft, I think it’s because I was imbued with a vague moral sense, partly from my upbringing and partly because I had an agent in Peggy Ramsay who believed in old-fashioned things like honour. I think, for most people, the honorable thing to do is still there. Although Geoff in the play talks about how he’ll get on, at the end he’s completely shackled by his complete social and sexual peccadilloes. In the end, his wife becomes the powerful one who says we just have to compete with the Hopcrofts on the ground they’ve created if we’re to compete. Of course, they cannot beat the Hopcrofts at their own game as Sidney is a past master and they’ll never out maneuver him.
Talking of revivals, you’ve also just had a recent and very acclaimed revival of Absent Friends in the West End, what was that like?
It was nice to see Absent Friends being seen by so many new people - and it must have been new people as many of them would have been toddlers, if that, when it was first staged!
You’ve said on many occasions, you were disappointed with the original West End production, where did the recent one get it right?
I think it’s probably helped by the fact that i’ve written an awful lot since then. When you look at Absent Friends now, you do think that’s not quite the author of How The Other Half Loves, Absurd Person Singular or even The Norman Conquests. But if you’ve seen or read Just Between Ourselves or Private Fears In Public Places, you realise it’s in that sort of configuration and what sort of approach it needs.
There is a case with Absent Friends where it’s quite difficult to steer between doing it totally glumly without any attempt at letting humour in or doing it totally seriously and allowing the humour to emerge quite naturally from the situation. I think what Jeremy Herrin did with this production - and it’s the same as the benchmark set by Matthew Warchus in The Norman Conquests in 2008, which was another remarkably good production by a young director - is that they had no axe to grind about trying to make it funny. They wanted to treat the play as a period piece that they just wanted to get right. I think once you get old enough in their eyes to blur into history a bit, they’ll take you that bit more seriously. If you’re of their generation, I suspect they’ll try and give you a hand. Jeremy’s production was very respectful - and if I say that word, I mean it’s a very affectionate production as well that cherished the text, which is very nice.
With Jeremy, because I was able to see quite an early run of the play, I was actually able to point out and reslant a couple of scenes which hadn’t quite gelled yet and he and the actors took that on board, which was rather useful. It’s not a question of pulling it all apart, but saying, ‘take it from that angle, instead of this angle.’ Sometimes it helps to just inform the scene, as frequently it’s not something you can write in the text without piling in lots of stage directions. It’s always nice on those occasions to be allowed to say a little about something, especially when it’s practical and helpful. Fortunately they’d got 90% of it right, so the other 10% was just constructive things, which I suspect they probably knew immediately what I meant.
It’s quite tricky just being a writer occasionally! Although occasionally there are writers that have no directorial eye at all, who tend to say rather unhelpful things and I’ve worked with some of them! They’ve said, ‘well when he says hello on the page, what he means is I rather miss you and I want to see you again.’ And you think, you can’t do that with that line, it’s just ‘hello’ and really you can only say it sadly or happily! They try and make out the text does much more than it actually does.
I think if the text says anything, it should say less. My plays may be getting longer, but my search for brevity is undiminished. Trying to say much more with much less and leaving it for the onlooker to just connect the dots with their own minds.
One of the notable things about the production of Absent Friends was its casting. It seemed to balance the need for both recognisable people, but also actors capable of doing justice to the play, rather than just going for unsuitable star-casting.
It’s an ensemble and that’s essential. If you did try and cast - for the sake of argument - Kevin Spacey as Colin, which would be ridiculous casting, as Colin, you’d have Kevin Spacey plus five others. Colin doesn’t come on until about page 30, so there would be restlessness in the audience and an expectation that that role is the role and when Colin goes off early, that’s it, the play’s over.
What was interesting about Absent Friends was that all these actors were of a level, but some were probably known to some of us better than others but one particular actor was not necessarily well known to everyone. Not being an EastEnders watcher, I wasn’t at all familiar with Kara Tointon. I think it achieved, to use a modern phrase, the Borgen or The Killing effect. There you had a whole load of people in a show, all Danish, all absolute cracking good actors, but you have no expectation from any of them because you have no or very little track record of them. I think what’s nice about my stuff at the moment is they’re taking it on that level. They’re asking, ‘what’s the best team we can get?’ The producers are trying to find a good group of actors that are best for the play and have a serious director, who keeps it ticking and tight and together make it go and work.
Of course, this didn’t happen the first time round, as you had people like Peter Bowles - who was very well-known even then - and obviously Richard Briers, who was very famous and so the audiences had an expectation there. But I think also, it was a play where I turned right and the director Eric Thompson went straight on, thinking he was doing The Norman Conquests again. It isn’t The Norman Conquests and I remember some of the reviews saying some of the jokes don’t pay off and what they were referring to weren’t jokes, they were just fabric and details.
You have another play soon to go into London too with Neighbourhood Watch, which has been incredibly successful. When you wrote it 18 months ago, you can’t have imagined it would get this sort of response or become so pertinent coinciding as it did with the 2011 riots.
It’s interesting because it does present the other side of the coin - which is typical for me - it isn’t about the rioters or the police, it’s about the bystanders who feel that they need to react to events. A lot of my plays are about people on the margins who feel threatened, but who haven’t actually been threatened and who - in the case of Neighbourhood Watch - somewhat over-react; although you can see why they react the way they do and why they feel events are out of their control.
I think we’ve got a fantastic way of disseminating information these days, partly through the press, partly through the media, partly through the internet and social networking. There is this immediate and somewhat graphic reportage. Yet if you speak to someone and they’re apparently in the middle of a riot or a rumpus, looting and burning of buildings apparently all around them, and say, ‘how are you?’ They’ll probably say, ‘how do you mean? I’ve just been down the pub.’ Television and newspapers often amplify events: a few hundred years ago, you could have a war and half the country wouldn’t even know about it unless a group of blood-stained soldiers trampled through your village, saying, ‘that was a terrible battle up at Bosworth. That was a right pasting.’ Now, of course, you immediately see it on your television or computer screen and think ‘Oh my God! There’s a war! The days of innocence are lost.
It’s all very different and it’s quite a sensitive network now, so if you ‘twang’ the net people notice and because I twanged it early, we got noticed. But then, I think it’s part of your job as writer to have a look at society and either report on directly - such as the Tricycle did with The Riots, which was a literal transcript of some of the participants - or indirectly as I do and, if necessary, extend it out to its logical conclusion: if this happens, what if this happens. So in a way, Neighbourhood Watch is no different from the new play Surprises, which is me conjecturing again.
How do you think the play’s been received?
It’s had an amazing run and it’s been generally very well received. What’s interesting is I’ve been reading show reports and there have been houses where the audience has been completely stunned by it and sit almost silent! There’s one report where the company manager had to look out and see if there actually was an audience there! Normally though, it gets a vigorous response, sometimes even a riotous one - especially in the places where people reckon they might need to build fences in a few years to keep the undesirables out!
There was one woman, who one of our actors over-head saying, we could do with some stocks in our village. That’s a bit creepy - very British.
It is transferring to the Tricycle Theatre in April, how do you think it will be received in London?
Well, it’s got my name on it, so they have been warned! The Tricycle asked me to bring it in though and the Artistic Director Nicolas Kent said he was an enormous fan which was nice. It might surprise audiences, but I hope it’ll entertain them even if perhaps its viewed as a bit lightweight - although its intentions are a bit heavy. Nonetheless to have actually landed in London is great. Being at the Tricycle allows us to keep the simplicity of the production; the West End would have put an unnecessary strain on it.
It’s been a difficult year for the arts in general in the UK, how do you think theatre has coped with it?
We weather the storm, we always do. But it’s at what cost? Obviously the cost is the art, because that is the reshape-able thing. There was talk at one stage - because of the Stephen Joseph Theatre being part of the London 2012 festival - of me reviving A Small Family Business; which is a 13 hander, a big play, but of course that couldn’t work. Maybe Surprises has a little bit of residue of that as it was intended to be a much bigger concept because I was waiting to hear - quite early along the line - if it would be running in repertory with A Small Family Business. I’m glad I didn’t write a 13 handed play though as no-one would have ever staged it again! The chances are that outside the National or the big subsidized companies, plays like A Small Family Business and Man Of The Moment will never be revived again. Any play that now has a money label on it, will probably not be done again.
On one hand, because I’ve always worked under constrictions and restricted cast sizes and budgets, sometimes I quite enjoy it. But occasionally, when I’ve been given the opportunity, I’ve gone for it. I’m capable of writing big plays, but I can’t see I’ll ever get the chance to do it again in my lifetime.
I think next year at the Stephen Joseph Theatre will certainly not be an exception, realistically. Hopefully not shrinking any more, but certainly not extending. But certainly within the SJT, people are still doing the same contortions that we seem to always have been doing over the years to make less look like more. It’s quite dispiriting. I remember earlier this century, the Executive Director Stephen Wood said to me, wouldn’t it be nice in one of these meetings if we could talk about the art rather than the money? But it’s always been money, ever since we moved into the SJT and that was not because we bit off more than we could chew. It was because when we came into the building, we came in with inadequate funding, which was never allowed for - we were caught in the trap of there being plenty of money for new buildings but nothing else. There was this benign atmosphere, which has shrunk away now, of opening a new building so you could see where the money went - nice seats, lights - but what hadn’t allowed for was you have to fill the theatre with something and unfortunately the running costs of such a theatre, even before you switch a light on stage, are considerable. The cost of staffing is essentially non-variable. For example, there are a minimum number of people who work front of house before you become illegal and you can’t open, but there is no such thing onstage. You can do plays with one, two or three people and one person is cheaper than three. The fact is though, these sort of plays are not particularly liked by audiences who get a little bit fed up by having just one bloke as the seat prices don’t vary or go down. They ask, ‘what have we got for our money?‘ They want 25 people on stage and then they think they’ve got their money’s worth. With things like Way Upstream, which still only has six or seven people in it, you can see where the money’s gone and it was a very popular play!
It’s always been a battle and always will be, but I think the attitude within the arts is that, yes we’ll manage somehow. We make a lot of noise that we’ve been cut, but in the end we just get on with it and somehow still do it. The opponents say they’re still there and doing it, so let’s cut even more. But the fact that Chris is now having to do pro-am children’s shows at christmas is a sign of the times and maybe that’ll seep into the rest of building. Sadly a lot of people won’t know the difference.
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