Interview: The Times (1986)

This interview was published in The Times on 5 November 1986.

The People To Watch

by Andrew Hislop

Alan Ayckbourn is a great audience-watcher during the performances of his plays. This celebrated master-craftsman, ever inventive of ingenious theatrical techniques to explore the comic muddle and suppressed horror of middle-class life, is never short of people to look at.

Translated into 24 languages, his plays are probably watched by more people in the world than those of any other living dramatist. Success, though, does not turn his head when it comes to focusing on the reactions of a paying customer. On the opening night of his first West End success,
Relatively Speaking, he became completely obsessed with the failure of the large woman eating sweets next to him to show any response to the play, despite the riotous acclaim around her. It was only after the final curtain had been lowered that he discovered she was Spanish.

For well over 20 years, however, Ayckbourn's critical gazing at his public - mainly adoring and guffawing, but also occasionally puzzled and disturbed - has been predominantly in Scarborough, first as apprentice, then as successor to his theatrical mentor,
Stephen Joseph. Joseph was a champion of theatre-in-the-round, which makes performers more aware of the audience, and Ayckbourn often watches them on the monitors in the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round while they clamber over the set during the intervals. [1]

The good playgoers of Scarborough, however, now have a temporary reprieve from the keen Ayckbourn eye, for their adopted theatrical son has taken a sabbatical from his unpaid job as
Artistic Director to direct three plays at the National Theatre: a new play of his own, A Small Family Business, next year at the Olivier, Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge at the Cottesloe and, opening tomorrow at the Lyttelton, a revival of the first of the celebrated Aldwych farces, Tons of Money.

He has chosen the programme not only to offer a full range of drama from the tragic to the lightest comedy, with his own play in the middle, but also to fit the theatres. He used to think good drama could be done anywhere, but now believes "the right space is essential for the right play".

His own play is the result of his obsession with the problems of mastering the vast Olivier - "the most infuriating theatre and the most interesting".

Ayckbourn has, of course, directed plays of his own at the National, most successfully perhaps the much-acclaimed
A Chorus of Disapproval - but only after first trying them out at Scarborough. Despite all his experience, Tons of Money brings his London debut directing other peoples' work. At least it is his debut directing some of other peoples' work - for he has given the play, originally written by Will Evans and Valentine but also tinkered with by a number of others, including Yvonne Arnaud, "a pretty big face-lift job". (Gone for instance are lines, intended for Arnaud, which only make sense in a French accent.)

Wisely, Ayckbourn has approached the problems of working in such a leviathan of a theatre as the National by trying to re-create some of the intimacy of Scarborough. He has his own company of 20, including many stalwarts of past Ayckbourn productions in both Scarborough and London and his own small stage crew. He has tried to keep things simple - "so I can do what I think I do best, which is to make companies".

Stephen Joseph had once told him, in a throwaway manner, "just create an atmosphere in which the actors can create". Creating that atmosphere, according to Ayckbourn, is "the most difficult thing in the world", but he is obviously good at it. Large, jovially rounded but very quick in mind, easygoing yet with the thinly veiled competitive spirit of the keen English amateur sportsman - appropriately, he keeps wicket -Ayckbourn is able both to get the best out of a company in short, intensive rehearsals and to make sure they have great fun in the process too. It also helps that he is thoroughly experienced in every aspect of
the theatre, including
acting. He once was even directed by Harold Pinter as Stanley in The Birthday Party, fresh from its famous mauling by the London critics. "I was lifted by a director with his brain on fire determined to make a point." He admits, however, that he would never have been asked to join the National as an actor.

Ayckbourn comes to the National at the summit of his career. The security of his Scarborough nest has enabled him to continue his work remarkably unaffected by those who have overpraised him, comparing him to Shakespeare, and those who have unjustly reviled him, regarding him as a vacuous, right-wing boulevardier. His recent West End success,
Woman in Mind, shows that his great talents as well as his limitations thrive unabated despite attempts by some to see him as a writer politically subversive of middle-class values as he is of theatrical convention.

Only Broadway remains un-conquered by his refusal to confine himself either to the theatrical shallows or depths. He does, however, reveal a comforting vulnerability about his move to the National. Though Sir Peter Hall was prepared to allow him, as is his wont at Scarborough, to write
A Small Family Business at the last moment, he produced it a year in advance. Since it was the first play for years he had to submit to an artistic director other than himself, he was overcome by anxiety when there was no immediate response. He sent another copy to Michael Gambon, who is to star in it. Still no reaction. In desperation he sent it to his mother for approval.

Perhaps this need for approval explains why he is so keen on observing audiences. Whether
Tons of Money is met by rapturous acclaim or Spanish sweet-rustling on its opening night, its director will be keenly watching the performances off as well as on stage.

Website Notes:
[1] The design and limitations of the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round meant audiences had to cross the stage to reach their seats as the public entrance was through one of the stage entrances (vows).

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.