Interviews with Alan Ayckbourn

This interview by Lynne Truss was published in the Times Educational Supplement on 13 February 1987.

A View From Waterloo Bridge

The Arthur Miller revival hastens on apace. In the last five years London has seen productions of nearly all his major works - in the West End, the Young Vic, the Shaw, as well as at the Barbican and the National - and this attention may rise to the level of national hysteria when the Miller memoirs are published in September by Methuen. Last Saturday at the National Theatre, the seasons had been so carelessly co-ordinated that one could choose between Peter Wood's production of The American Clock in one auditorium, and a preview of Alan Ayckbourn's A View from the Bridge in another.

None the less,
A View from the Bridge looks set to be the best revival of them all. Just the idea of Ayckbourn directing Michael Gambon as Eddie Carbone is enough to set the feet drumming with anticipation. Having now heard what Ayckbourn has been thinking about the play, I just hope I haven't already left it too late to book. If they think of Ayckbourn as a director at all, most people must think of him only as a director of his own plays. Certainly that has been his role at the National, ever since he co-directed Bedroom Farce with Peter Hall in 1977. But in fact, counting his years as a radio drama producer, he has directed nearly 150 plays, and now he has joined the National to take over one of its repertory companies.

The "Ayckbourn group" was formed to do three plays (preferably one in each auditorium) with one of the three to be written for the Olivier by Ayckbourn himself. "That's to make up for any money I might lose on the first two", he laughs.

Given this opportunity, Ayckbourn decided to choose for the other two plays the farcical
Tons Of Money for the Lyttelton and the tragic A View from the Bridge for the Cottesloe. It would be hard to think of plays more different or more demanding of actors in their diversity. For Michael Gambon in particular it's a wonderful trio of parts. The new Ayckbourn will cast him as a small businessman with idealistic delusions, meanwhile in Tons Of Money he plays the butler Sprules (as a kind of domestic Quasimodo); and in between he takes on the doomed longshoreman Eddie Carbone.

Eddie is a character who "reads" extremely well, but he can disappear in performance. His tragedy is so thoroughly self-inflicted and is conducted at such a high emotional pitch that audiences can grow tired of him (even though the play is a mere 90 minutes). That's something that Ayckbourn has given a lot of thought to. "Directing tragedy has a lot in common with directing farce", he says. "When we did
Tons Of Money we had to meet the audience on the floor, gently leading them up the wall and then leave them standing on the ceiling. If you're doing your job well, they shouldn't notice until it's time to get down again. It's the same with A View from the Bridge: the emotional level is big - and the British are terribly embarrassed by emotions - so you have to make a journey from Normality to Big without leaving them behind."

"It's down to someone like Gambon really. He can't avoid getting the sympathy of the audience. He's big and powerful - he actually looks like a man who unloads ships - and he's dangerous. But he can turn on a sixpence and suddenly look like some small child. I defy anyone, male or female, not to want to go and hug him. Eddie is a difficult, bigoted man, but the character is magnificent so long as you can get the sense that he's only doing what he thinks is right. I've watched run-through after run-through, and it never fails to move me.

"I've had to guide the actors quite sternly through it. That's partly because it's so tightly written, so precise. Points have to be made very carefully. With a big play, with a
King Lear, you get plenty of shots at the same point; you're bound to hit the audience sooner or later. This play is so dense you could miss them altogether if you don't get every little thing to work. Each scene condenses a whole course of action, so you have to get the pitch and the tempo exactly right. We found at first that people were rushing into heavy emotions at the beginning of each scene. A lot of the rehearsals have been to do with coming in lightly."

And, as Ayckbourn is keen to point out, Miller's play is not all gloom and doom anyway. It would be much less good if it were. In the first scene particularly, when Eddie is happy and secure, there is a lot of outright comedy.

"But it's not just at the beginning. We've found a lot of humour right through the play. And it's absolutely essential: if the tone stays the same the play doesn't go anywhere. The play has its own specific gravity, which can't be detracted from. But you have to approach it with a certain lightness. It's interesting, because it's the reverse of doing a comedy, where you don't laugh much at all in rehearsals: you're busy trying to make the humour truthful. With
A View from the Bridge we've been having a very good time. It reminds me of seeing Michael Hordern once when he was rehearsing Lear with Jonathan Miller. I asked him how it was going, and he said, 'I've no idea, but I'm having a hell of a lot of laughs!'"

I wondered whether there was anything in the play that, as a dramatist, Ayckbourn thought might be improved. Had he ever felt at all tempted to interfere with the text? Not at all:

"I put away my dramatist's head when I'm directing other people's plays. Except I suppose I pick things up from them. I mean, I don't think, 'ah, this is a good bit of dramatic construction, I must remember that when I write my next play'. But Miller is a consummate craftsman, and I have great respect for him. Living inside Eddie for a few months, instead of one of my own characters, I hope I've learned a bit; grown a bit."

Copyright: The Times. This edited transcription and the end-notes have been compiled and researched by Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.