Absent Friends (1997)The following interview with Alan Ayckbourn and his archivist Simon Murgatroyd took place in 1997.
Simon Murgatroyd: Absent Friends is now seen as a pivotal point in your playwriting career, what are your opinions of it?
Alan Ayckbourn: It’s an interesting play for me because one sees certain plays in the chain as turning points, where I felt I took a positive step in a new direction. I’m rather fond of it because of its significance. When I got to The Norman Conquests, there was a moment when I ran out of plot - as all three plays are reliant on each other. It was a moment, I realised, when I had to have nobody doing very much. I was very nervous about that scene, just people sitting down and talking about their relationships. It sort of led me to write a play with a lot less visible action.
Was there any other inspiration behind writing a piece that, arguably, was a big departure for you?
It was actually inspired by a real event and to that extent it’s quite unusual, as I rarely write about an event from life. A friend had lost someone dear to them in terrible circumstances. A group of us had invited her around and she was better than we were. The tables were turned and our slightly strained relationships showed signs of breaking up instead. I realised this was good dramatic material and was rather guiltily putting it all away.
Were you worried about how the original audience might deal with such a different approach from you and of the subject matter?
I remember when I did it in the Library Theatre, being very nervous about it before the audience came in, as it didn’t have all the things I had become known for. People are now more used to that tightrope between embarrassment and laughter, which is the hallmark of the play.
What led to the decision to revive it?
It’s a very difficult play to do and I really wanted to do it again and set the record straight about what sort of play it was. I had the feeling it had got misinterpreted - normally through direction. It has a very delicate balance; it has the appearance of being a completely flat surface, quite clean. But when you dig under, it’s quite alarming what’s going on because everybody’s being terribly polite. Hopefully the audience is saying ‘Good Lord, what’s going on under there?’ It’s quite distressing by the end.
Are you approaching it differently to how you did when you first directed it in 1972?
I think I’ve brought something new to it as a director, which is a certain confidence, because originally it was such a new direction for me as a writer. It fortunately worked; now one has the confidence to approach it and say we’re going for it. The darker I make it, the funnier it becomes. It’s a comedy of embarrassment and I think it still remains funny.
Absent Friends is the first play where you really deal with a dark, even a taboo subject. What were you trying to achieve in writing about death in the play?
It looks at how we treat death. All the great farce writers used sex as a taboo incessantly and that really has past it’s shock value now. At the moment people are relying on violence as shock. We’re reaching the point though where we’re going to have to find a way to shock through ideas, not exploding heads; Absent Friends is shocking in the way it deals with death, how we treat death. It is deliberately about a girl you don’t see, as far away from the centre of the action as you can get. Most of the characters don’t know her and have never seen her. It’s about our attitude to death and how we very easily become convoluted in our statements about it. They’re coping as best they can which is often in an apparently unstable manner. Somewhere in there, they haven’t learnt to deal with that sort of pain. I remember the death of Sophie Winter* here was devastating. It totally flattened the company, although some of us were pretty sure we could cope with it. But there was an extraordinary feeling that your emotions wouldn’t allow you to cope. I realised I had no preparation for that at all. Of course you don’t.
But it’s about more than death…
It’s about our inability to cope, but it’s less about death than of the death of love.
* Sophie Winter was an actress at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, who died in 1995.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.