Alan Ayckbourn: The Website Interview 2008

This interview took place between Alan Ayckbourn and his archivist Simon Murgatroyd in June 2008. Within it, Alan Ayckbourn talks about Life & Beth and its relationship to Haunting Julia and Snake In The Grass as well as his thoughts on the future following his stroke in 2006 and this impending retirement as Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in January 2009.

Simon Murgatroyd: As always, thank you for taking the time for this interview, I'd like to begin with the three supernatural plays for the Stephen Joseph Theatre's 2008 summer season. I’ve always felt you’ve had a soft spot for Haunting Julia, what are your own thoughts on the play?
Alan Ayckbourn: It started off as a scare-‘em play but it is also about things I find very interesting: quite dark themes like the effect suicide has on the people they leave behind and how parents affect their children.
No matter how remotely connected you are to a suicide, I think you always bring it back to yourself: you wonder what you could have done, which is probably nothing at all. For Julia’s father and mother, there will always be the question: “Is there something different we could have done that would have made a difference?” I suspect the play also hints that Joe and Dolly accelerated an already existing condition.
Julia is undoubtedly a genius and the play also asks whether that sort of behaviour goes hand in hand with genius? Is genius actually a form of personality instability? I suspect that's the case, although a lot of them stop short of suicide – or there’d be millions of dead genii lying all over the place!
Finally, it’s about the supernatural. Of all three plays this season, it’s undoubtedly the supernatural one. This element is much stronger here as, in a sense, we are taking part in a séance. We trying to triangulate an image of the girl with these three actors on stage; trying to create her first by account and then by actual concentration. I’ve said to the actors at previous productions, the greatest achievement would be for the audience to almost think they see her. Which is why there is no interval: there’s no way you can take 15 minutes from a séance to have a drink and come back and say: “Where were we? Was anybody there?”
Whether they manage to bring her back or not, I suspect, is left a little bit in the air. Do we hear Julia through Joe, because he is so obsessed and close to her?
It’s a dark journey but not without its humour. I tried to put in a sceptic, Andy the boyfriend doesn’t believe in all this rubbish and indeed there’s this wonderful line in the movie
The Haunting, where the chief spook-hunter says: “I hope to goodness you never do see anything, Jack, or the hinges of that closed door of a mind of yours will break open.” And Andy is probably worse affected by what happens than the others because he’s shut the door in his mind very firmly and the other two at least have left enough leeway that what’s happening is possible. Personally if I saw a ghost it’s probably finish me off altogether! I hope I’ve enough leeway in my mind that if I did see one it wouldn’t cause a complete turning around of my faith and confidence.

You’ve always been fascinated by off-stage characters; Julia is a very strong example of this.
Julia’s a very strong personality. She’s one of those very sure people - or those apparently very sure people - who suddenly lose all confidence.

And there’s something ironic about her living on through the music – again an element this is largely kept off-stage during the play and left to the audience's imagination.
There was a deliberate choice of music being Julia's discipline. Because musicians, by natural rote, by the age of five can be composing some pretty passable music. Music is a gift that comes very early and therefore it’s akin to mathematics. Music as a discipline is quite mathematical in theory. Julia lives in this completely twilight world where the rules of music are very much laid down and she explores and cuts her own path through these laws. Her emotional life is therefore severely truncated. She is a complete sociopath, unable to conduct a social relationship, let alone a sexual relationship. Her life is completely governed by her gifts, which is a baffling state not only for her but especially for her parents, particularly a simple, self-made man like Joe living in a finite life.
Interestingly the women – all off-stage - are all quite strong. Dolly, Joe’s wife, is the one who, one suspects, blames Joe entirely for the death of Julia; which is probably one of the factors which drives Joe. In a lighter vein, we hear about Pam, the airline traffic control wife of Andy who seems to go for dominant women. So there’s very strong women hovering in the background of the play.

Haunting Julia was initially scheduled to open the end-stage McCarthy auditorium at the new Stephen Joseph Theatre, but instead was staged in the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round. What happened there?
I remember originally thinking that I would write something for the McCarthy to open it. I think two things changed: firstly, because the McCarthy was delayed and, secondly, because I had a time-span in my mind. Haunting Julia was very clear in my head and I didn’t want to delay writing it. I hate the idea of sitting on a play, deliberately not giving birth to it as it was already three dimensional in my head. Therefore I did do it in Westwood [the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round] in the round.
The original production was interesting, it was in the round but was actually more three-sided. I then put the record straight by reviving it for the McCarthy [in 1999] where it was written for and where I think it worked slightly better. For this season, I had the scheme for 2008 and I thought: “Oh damn, I’ve got an end-stage show and two round plays.” But, I thought we can probably do
Haunting Julia in the round. So I thought laterally and how you could come up into the room through the floor; through a trapdoor - we’ve all seen student digs like this. So it occurred to me it might be quite scary if Julia was below us and of course the floor is the focal point of the round. So now we’re all focused on the floor and then this trap flies open….

You mentioned the original production: the staging did pose problems as a substantial part of the audience couldn’t see an essential part of the play. Did this strike you as a problem with the production?
Yes, but it did benefit from – and this is no reflection on the second one – having Ian Hogg, who was extraordinary.

Coming back to this season, how did the idea of a supernatural season come about?
It all came about when Susie Blake and Liza Goddard - old friends - found themselves on tour together with High Society. Liza was rehearsing, covering Susie before taking over from her. They spent quite a lot of time together and started discussing Snake in the Grass. Susie, I think it was, who had been in the original production got in touch with me and said: "We think it would be a great idea to revive Snake In The Grass. Liza's read it and thinks it's just her part and I'd love to do it again." I said, "That's an interesting number!" So that was the seed that planted the season. Then when I was working on If I Were You with Liza, I said to her: "Look, I've an idea to write a third play using all six of you. Leave it with me." And out came Life & Beth which unites both companies and is a completion of the three plays. It's also the lightest of the three.
Life & Beth is quite different from the other two, although I think they all have quite a different flavour: Snake In The Grass is a thriller - a supernatural thriller with some spooky moments; Haunting Julia is a dark play with suspense in a darker register even than Snake In The Grass. I’m not quite sure where Life & Beth stands, although there may be one or two jumps in it! They are a united team though: Snake In The Grass and Haunting Julia are obviously about what parents do to their kids. But even Beth has her problems there, she has a son who is a bit of a wally! Life & Beth is, like the others, a play about closure too.

Life & Beth deals with a different type of death though to the previous themes of suicide and murder in the other plays: Beth deals with the entirely natural death of a partner, a husband of many years. Can you tell us a little bit about the play?
Beth and Gordon’s wasn’t an unhappy marriage; nonetheless, there is a certain closure with death, which finishes a chapter in your life and you don’t suddenly want to be plunged back into that last chapter again, much as you may have enjoyed it. You want to go on with the story and mentally we are equipped to do that. Yes, there are those real loving couples who drop dead within three days of each other, which is obviously a sort of rather touching but rare occurrence. But most widows go on from strength to strength having got rid of a husband they loved and supported through their span. Then its cruise ships and holidays, spending their last few years with abandon as the mother does in Time Of My Life.
In most of my plays people delight in letting each other down; but Beth is a woman who’s done her duty. It’s a pleasant duty, but she has kept her bargain which I think a lot of men and women do - they enter into a pact and see each other through it. But that does mean at the natural termination of it - not like Miriam bumping her father off in
Snake In The Grass! – you’re naturally allowed to move on.

On the surface, Beth is very much a typical Ayckbourn woman: middle-aged from middle-class suburban England. Yet she’s not really the same, is she?
Beth is amazingly level-headed, quite shockingly so, she’s also quite dry and funny. She’s kind but tough and I like her. She’s very together. I think she could have given lessons to some of my earlier women such as Vera from Just Between Ourselves.

The season also sees you returning to Snake In The Grass, a very dark play with some quite challenging themes.
The theme of Snake In The Grass is very much abuse. Again it parallels the suicide in Haunting Julia: that effect abuse or suicide has on the victim. I’m always interested to read the victims of domestic abuse very often consider themselves to blame in some way when the husband’s bashing the living daylights out of them. They stand by them and say awful things like: “I have only myself to blame” and you think “Oh my God. How have you come to that mental state?” Annabel tries in her long speech in Snake In The Grass to say I wanted him – Brad - to notice me, I just wanted to get his attention. He’s just drifted away from her: first of all he’s neglected her sexually, then socially, then intellectually and finally emotionally. So she behaves badly and gets whacked and falls into a spiral of violence. And he's one of those abusers who is immediately apologetic, made it up to her, cried, held her, apologised and bought her flowers and chocolates; which is no cycle to be in.
One suspects Miriam and Lewis’s [Alice] relationship is also slightly violent as well. Miriam gives that hint when she asks Annabel: 'Did you enjoy it, getting hit?' Which of course Annabel didn’t. Annabel is in a sense prepared to put up with it in order to get the results, Miriam has gone one step further and quite likes the idea.

And of course, ironically, Annabel believes she has escaped her father by moving to Australia, but she's hasn't.
Annabel quite simply marries her father.

Parental love, often a very dysfunctional love, is also an important theme of both this play and Haunting Julia.
Definitely. Joe smothers Julia; Father bullied Miriam and Annabel. He’s that classic alpha male father who bullies the older daughter into being a boy by throwing tennis balls at this poor girl. I do know fathers who have daughters, who bowl short pitch cricket balls for hours; the poor girls fending them off as best they could before running off to the comfort of their home and their doll houses!

Does this theme extend into Life & Beth?
There’s also a subtext in Life & Beth where we present a boy from this ostensibly very happy marriage where both parents are present; where the mother is supporting her husband and he knows everything, which she is quite happy to defer to – “Don’t ask me, ask your father.” The father is apparently very knowledgeable and the boy is very drawn towards trying to emulate this man who has been held up to him as the picture of the perfect male by his mother and even his father: “I am the perfect male, copy me.” Because he sees this apparently ideal relationship, because all the cracks have been very carefully papered over by Beth to conform with conventions, the son tries to emulate that relationship with obviously quite catastrophic results. He’s picking up girls who totally get driven mad by him, even on a short car journey home.

Which is Ella...
She’s one of my few characters who never speaks. I never intended her that way: I started writing her and she came in the door and said “oh” once and I thought she hasn’t got anything to contribute. It’s a colour the play needs to have very clearly and these characters can be very strong. She starts in distress and ends in high dudgeon! The only time you hear her is through the door.

I noticed that Life & Beth also shares a spiritual angle with If I Were You, which seems new to your plays. In both plays, there is an appeal to a higher power which only serves to complicate matters further. In the end, it's Beth or Jill who have to take control.
I thought I’d introduce someone to support Beth and I thought of this wretched man who’s attracted to her. He's a vicar who obviously lives with his mother and he’s a lonely man - vicars get a very bad time on stage very often, I hope not from me though - and this man is completely vulnerable. He’s not the brightest button in the box, but he tries, he really genuinely wants to help and he prays which leads to all sorts of problems for Beth. I think in the end it’s as you say, God helps those who help themselves: Beth grabs the nettle and makes the choices and the decisions. She says, right, I’ve been given this problem. I don’t mind if someone prays for me to ask for help but in the end I’d better go ahead and try and solve it myself because I’m not going to wait for answers to come drifting down the chimney.

Moving away from the plays and onto your writing: you had the stroke in February 2006, has it affected your writing?
Physically it’s a little but slower, but I think it’s the same intensity; now that I’ve got three plays under my belt. Beth I wrote quite fast. I just work shorter days: I get up early-ish; down by 8am and work until lunchtime and then have a bite to eat and then I swim and spend the rest of the day not working. As a result, I now work in quite short three to four hours bursts in the morning and I probably get as much done. Obviously I’m only working half days over a longer period, so I spend a couple of weeks writing the plays now.

And you've got another new one for Christmas?
Awaking Beauty, the latest one, I wrote very quickly. We had a tour for A Trip To Scarborough earlier this year and I knew that between leaving the company at Guildford, where the tour began, and going to Bath at the tour's end, I had about two-and-a-half weeks. By the time I arrived at Bath, I had virtually finished it and I said to Denis King, the composer: “I’ve done it” and that was 95% of dialogue and 80% of the lyrics, which rather freaked Denis out: “There’s not very much for me to do then!”
But having said that, the lyrics are flexible and I held off it for four weeks, so Denis had a couple of weeks with the script and was able to get some useful ideas down.

You’re obviously not slowing down!
I’m still obsessed. I just can’t stop when I’m working. Meal breaks are very boring. The coffee tea machine works overtime; it makes a disgusting cup of coffee but it works fine. Hot liquid just moves me from the computer, once around the table and back to work again!

I think many people thought following your stroke, you would probably end up concentrating more on the directing.
I thought I’d do that. But I think that the problem is that – well, it isn’t a problem - but it’s a fact that I’ve now got so used to writing that if there was a day went by with no play in me, even a glimmer of the play, I’d feel incredibly, spiritually lonely. I still go from the highs of beginning a play to finishing it, which is very high, to a sheer drop when it's finished and I’ve said goodbye to the writing. Then I move to a growing sense of excitement that I’m going to have another go at it with other people when I direct it.

Your schedule in 2008 has been remarkable, between April and December, you’ve directing four plays and written one new one. How are you going to follow that?
I’m hoping to write a new one which will certainly not take place until the new year. I can’t see any time for writing until then! I think that’s the first thing I'll do. But until the new Artistic Director is in place [at the Stephen Joseph Theatre], I’m really leaving any plans on my involvement with the SJT on hold. I don’t want the Artistic Director to arrive and for me to say: “By the way I’m doing this play of mine in July and you can schedule around it.” I’d much sooner them say: 'I think we’ll do without a play of yours this year and we’ll just carry on with the programme after that.'
Hopefully I’ll have something to do next year - just in case I’m told by the new incumbent, he / she would prefer to fly without me at all! Which I can see and would understand. I'm trying to make my departure as easy as possible for all of us.

All this coincides with a real resurgence of interest in your plays. The West End productions of Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests and Alan Strachan’s almost single-handed revival of some high quality touring productions.
I sat on this for a long time, waiting for the right time, because I had a really disastrous experiment with Michael Codron in 2002. We had a scheme where I would continue to provide new plays, which I would direct coming out of Scarborough; he meanwhile could do revivals directed by other people. Unfortunately, we fell at the first hurdle with Loveday Ingram’s disastrous debacle Bedroom Farce. I immediately said to Michael we’ll have to stop this. I guess that was partly down to the fact there are just a handful of people who do my plays well.

And you’re finally about to launch Woman In Mind at Scarborough. A revival with several false starts.
The actress Janie Dee and I have been on and offing on this one since before the stroke. This is third time lucky! We clinched this one pretty early in the year, when she said “What about now?” and I said yes. Both of us have got to do it before we get much older! It’s a part she has to play. Peter Hall has desperately been trying to get her to do it and I said “Not available I’m afraid, I’m doing it!”

I'm sure there are going to be many people looking forward to seeing this. Thank you for generously giving the website so much of your time, it's much appreciated.

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