Interviews with Alan Ayckbourn

This interview by Michael Billington was published in The Guardian on 8 August 1988.

New Mood Of The Man Of The Moment

Ayckbourn's latest play, opening in Scarborough on Wednesday, is called Man Of The Moment. It is a pretty apt title for Ayckbourn himself. Catching up with him in Bath during the tour of Henceforward… (his darkly hilarious comedy about a man who puts computers before people), I discovered that his diary is packed tighter than an opera star's for the next two years. This is partly because parochial old London has woken up to the fact, since A View From The Bridge, [1] that he is a top-class director as well as a major writer.

Ayckbourn's major commitment is to the
Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in Scarborough where he has just launched a season devoted almost exclusively to new plays in both main house and studio. On top of that, Ayckbourn will next year become a co-director of the Peter Hall Company at the Haymarket for whom he and Hall will do two productions apiece. [2]

Then at the end of 1989 or early in 1990 Ayckbourn will mount a two-play season for Michael Codron, probably at the Aldwych, comprising
Othello (with Michael Gambon as the Moor) and Man of the Moment: same set, same company, different plays. Richard Eyre also says he hopes Ayckbourn will return to the National. [4]

It all makes for a pretty full dance-card. But what intrigues me is Ayckbourn's total commitment to new work at Scarborough at a time when the bulk of regional theatres are safer than a Chubb lock. This year he is launching not only his own work (including
The Maze Plays [5] for five to nine year-olds) but Frank Dunai's The Parasol (an unsolicited dramatisation of a Chekhov short-story which intrigued Ayckbourn the moment he read on the fly-leaf a note saying "Dear Alan, I am turning in my grave, Yours Anton") and Peter King's The Ballroom which includes formation-dancing in its story of a middle-aged love-affair. On top of that there are new studio plays by Susan Hill, Stephen Mallatratt, American Gus Kaikonnen and South African Geraldine Aron.

But why this commitment to new work in Scarborough?

"The short answer," says Ayckbourn, "is because I feel that is what we are there for. We were formed by
Stephen Joseph to do new plays and my own work would never have had a favourable climate in which to develop if he hadn't stuck with it. The brief I give writers is the one I was given: by all means write whatever you want but for God's sake say it in a way that is going to appeal to people who come to the theatre.

"I think we encourage a healthy commercialism in the writer. In the end, we say if your message is in an empty theatre it is useless. Let's see how clever we can be at saying unpalatable things in a palatable manner. So we use our bar-space
[6] not for outré experiments but as a kind of Radio Two theatre where we hope to tempt people in with intelligent but not too heavy stuff."

Saying harsh things in a palatable manner is Ayckbourn's own special forte. But what is fascinating is how his own work is not merely getting darker in tone but increasingly veering towards social analysis.
A Small Family Business strikes me as a ruthless attack on the collapse of moral values in Britain.

Henceforward… (due in London in November with Ian McKellen) is set in a nightmarish future where man is enslaved by machine and prefers a robotic woman to a real one. And, as Ayckbourn outlines the comic premise of Man Of The Moment, it is clear that it too is about the state of the nation.

"I knew it would eventually play in tandem with
Othello but I wasn't trying to write my version of Shakespeare which might not quite stand up. Othello is a play about jealousy and the fall of a hero: my play is about the public taste for anti-heroes. I was struck by the fact that someone has made a film about Buster Edwards with Phil Collins and that we live in a world where the great train robber is a star and the poor old driver who got hit on the head and subsequently died is forgotten. The prelude to my play concerns a bank-cashier who has had a go at a gunman and enjoyed a two-day triumph as a local hero.

"The bank-robber meanwhile goes to jail for 12 years and when he comes out is discovered to be a media natural. His career takes off and he has a phone-in programme called Ask Vic in which he says things like 'Trust me kids, it's a mug's life, crime.' We pick him up at the point where a TV producer has a bright idea for a series called
Their Paths Crossed and confronts the bank-clerk with the super-celeb in the latter's Mediterranean villa.

"Interestingly enough, Gambon is going to play the cashier, our Iago will be the ex-villain and our Desdemona the TV producer trying to cope with a legless crew and get the two men together to fight it out. I suppose I am moving into the social play because there are a limited number of things you can say about man-woman politics and because I feel disturbed at the kind of world we inhabit, a murky, twilight zone where good and bad are less clearly defined."

Ayckbourn looks back on his two-year stint at the
National with considerable pleasure: his aim, he says, was to create a Scarborough-type family feeling without the obvious benefits of sun, sea and sand. But the key to his productions - particularly the Miller - was to demonstrate to us that domestic tragedy always takes place in the context of a living community.

"The problem with
A View From The Bridge is that a lot of characters don't appear until the last ten pages. As a dramatist, this worried me so I thought we should both establish the neighbours and immigrant-community early on and also start the play quite lightly. The play reaches such a powerful conclusion you have to grease the slope quite painlessly for the audience."

This strikes me as the real key to Ayckbourn: he is a wholly pragmatic man of the theatre. As a director, he understands that the thing about tragedy - unless it be the Greeks or Racine - is that the characters themselves don't know they are in one. As a dramatist, he also realises that if you can woo an audience with laughter you can then hit them with a dark and sombre vision of both sexual politics and social decay.

Once categorised as a popular boulevard writer, Ayckbourn is increasingly emerging as a major tragi-comic dramatist.

Website Notes:
[1] Alan Ayckbourn’s highly acclaimed production of Arthur Miller’s
A View From The Bridge was produced at the National Theatre during Alan’s two year sabbatical from Scarborough as a company director for the venue.
[2] This plan for Alan to be a co-director for the Peter Hall company fell through and did not take place.
[3] Again, this did not go according to plan and the plan was dropped.
Man Of The Moment did open in London - at The Globe in 1990 - and Michael Gambon did go on to star in Othello for Alan, but at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough. The plays were never performed by the same company in London though. Further details about this can be found here.
[4] Alan did not return to the National Theatre until 1991 with his family play,
Invisible Friends.
The Maze Plays was an early working title for Mr A’s Amazing Maze Plays.
[6] The 'bar-space' refers to the Studio at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, a small end-stage space where lunch-time and late-night productions were primarily staged.

Copyright: The Guardian. 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.