Interview: The Sunday News (1975)

This interview was published in the Sunday News on 14 December 1975.

Ayckbourn: Underneath The Darkness, Laughter

by Ruth Hamilton

In his preface to
Relatively Speaking, which he wrote about 10 years ago, Alan Ayckbourn remarks that he'd been asked to write something which would simply make people laugh. "This seemed to me as worthwhile a reason for writing a play as any," he goes on, "so I tried to comply."

He still does, and his trilogy of plays,
The Norman Conquests, is now making Broadway audiences laugh uproariously, supplementing the jocularity right next door, where Ayckbourn's Absurd Person Singular is now the longest-running comedy on the Main Stem.

Yet Ayckbourn, a large, easy man who does not laugh at his own jokes, senses a more saturnine content in his later work.

"The plays are getting darker," he says. "There's something underneath the laughter." Ayckbourn has had 10 plays produced in London's West End during the last 11 years. He's a Londoner by birth (1939) and has worked in theatre ever since leaving school, first as an actor, and for the last several years as production director at the
Library Theatre in Scarborough, Yorkshire.

Sitting in the living room of his small, perfect house in Keats Lane, Hampstead, in north London, Ayckbourn reminisced about his career as playwright, which began when he was acting for the Scarborough company.

"I write all my plays for Scarborough. I never try to think what they'll be like in London or Berlin. It's better to write several plays and get home confidence in your own style before you're discovered by someone. And unless you're getting produced, you're not developing. You just go backward. You need a chance to observe: to see the things you like and don't like, the things you can do better next time. It's like building furniture - you get to know all the joints."

Ayckbourn's technique is rooted in looking at life from uncharacteristic vantage points. "If you have a road smash [that's British for highway accident], you can look at the road smash and write something tragic. I tend to look at the periphery and see the reaction of people looking on, and their reactions may be funny. People are always trying to behave the way they think other people want them to behave, and of course that is not the way people want them to behave.

"I've always been a stage person," says Ayckbourn, who has not written for television or movies. My stuff doesn't immediately attract the filmmakers of today. They want to see if it will run a year and a half on Broadway. They look at it, and if Gene Hackman can't play it, it's no go. Every film has to be made with the United States in mind, because that's where the money is.

"They came to me once and said, "You can do anything you want, there will be no qualifying-clauses. There's just one thing: don't set it in England. Europe's OK, but people are fed up with England.' 'Well, I'm sorry,' I said, 'but all my plays are set in England. You'll have to get someone else.' Anyway, film is a director's medium. He controls it. It's visual, which is why I don't work in films. I have more control where I am."

At the moment, he is controlling a device called
Confusions, five one-act plays planned for production in London in May. "They vary from fairly frenetic farces to melancholy pieces. They're hard to write, like short stories. There are 23 characters for five actors. When we did it at Scarborough, the dressing room was awash with costumes and wigs. It's nice if you get five clever actors together. It's an actor's evening, and they love it. They like it because one of the enormous problems actors face is repetition and staleness. If you go and see something you saw six or seven months ago, it ofter isn't a shadow of what it was. The actors have lost touch with it."

Also in the Ayckbourn-ian wings is
Bedroom Farce, which will be done by the National Theatre next year, and Just Between Ourselves, being written for Scarborough.

"I have a rhythm of about one play a year. The first 11 months are spent sketching - not with notes, but in my head - and the last two weeks, or one, are spent writing. I tend to let it turn over and over, and then, usually close to the first rehearsal, put it down. There's rarely more than a month between the final script and the first night. And yes, I direct all my shows at Scarborough. There is very little change in rehearsal - some cutting and trimming. There may be flaws, but that's it: we do it.

"The actors in the company are on the same wave length. They respond. Part of the fun is trying to baffle them a little. I try to save the casting for the end, and sometimes change it even then - give a part to this one, who's not used to playing that kind of role. The alarming thing is that having been with this group so long, I forget the actors are getting older. I say to someone, 'I'd love to, but you realize I'm 35. My God.'
"The trouble is, in general, with comedy, the technique needed requires an older actor. You may not look 21, but you know how to do it."

As a former actor, Ayckbourn is ever sensitive to the way scenes "play."

"Theatre is about actors meeting an audience. Ultimately, the audience haven't come to see a director, they haven't come to see a scene designer, they've come to see actors. I quite like people who assume actors make it all up as they go along; that it can't be written down."

Copyright: Sunday News. 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.