Interview: The Daily Telegraph (1983)

This interview was published in the Daily Telegraph on 24 January 1983.

That Pioneering Spirit

by John Barber

If a dramatist's point of departure is the telling of a story (as it always should be), then according to Friedrich Durrenmatt that story must be thought out to its conclusion. This is effected, he says, only when the story has taken the worst possible turn. That turn must be the result of an unforeseeable, accidental and disastrous human encounter.

This arresting generalisation certainly applies to
Oedipus Rex, Romeo and Juliet and Charley's Aunt. And it applies superbly to Alan Ayckbourn's Way Upstream, currently at the National. This is the play whose over ambitious use of a giant water-tank postponed its opening and has since caused several performances to be cancelled. [1] Nevertheless it has been delighting audiences who manifestly agree with that minority of critics who welcomed the play as a masterly step forward for Ayckbourn.

It begins as a wry comedy about holidaymakers in a cabin cruiser, and goes on to expose quite ruthlessly their pettiness, aggression and sexual confusions when their boat is taken over by a couple of charming rogues. The upshot is as unforeseen and disastrous as Durrenmatt would have wished.

In Scarborough the other day I saw Ayckbourn's latest, a revue with songs,
Incidental Music, and was again impressed by the playwright's "pursuit of the bleakest and unkindliest truths about marriage, friendship and working relationships." As always there is plenty of surface fun, but Alan Ayckbourn is now confronting an evidently deep-seated conviction about human depravity, or at least the brutality and beastliness in people. I cannot, like some colleagues, regret this, any more than I can regret that the author of The Comedy of Errors went on to write Macbeth, Othello and King Lear.

Next morning I had a long talk with England's most prolific and successful playwright in the cosy
theatre-in-the-round in Scarborough where the plays are first staged before winging their way to London and translation into 24 languages. (Making Tracks comes to Greenwich in March.)

A large, comfortable-looking but shy man, he hardly suggests a coming tragedian. But his life has not been all roses. He is the survivor of three broken homes. His father went off when he was five and his mother married again - the boy wrote a letter: "Dear Mummy, I hope you'll have a happy marriage, Love, Alan." But her second marriage failed. So, in due course, did her son's, after much screaming and hurling of food against walls. (" I think a big piece of us dies in marriage…. The marriages I knew are either fraught or dull.").

Alan Ayckbourn does not want to be known as king of the giggle business. He is closely in touch with his local audience, and is amused by their remarks in the theatre bar. It's either: "Why do you always write the same play?" or, after a tragicomedy: "What are you up to? Why don't you stick to what you can do?'' And what does he do? " I like to take enormous risks with the public, to see how far I can go and get away with it."

A Trip to Scarborough is a complex mingling of Sheridan with scenes set in 1914 and today. [2] His Intimate Exchanges, another local hit, is a duologue with, believe me, 16 different endings. Ever aware of his one big failure, his collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber on Jeeves, he is enjoying his present collaboration with the composer Paul Todd because music means speed and economy and a freedom from naturalism. Above all, he is ready to expose himself to the risk of failure if it means digging deeper. In Way Upstream, when he sends a chill through the spectators, he knows it is because he is taking them on a disconcerting journey into themselves.

His talk is all of alleyways he wants to explore more fully. He spends a lot of time reading plays for his theatre, and is struck by the gloomy passion in young authors. He himself began in reverse fashion, with fluffy plays, actors' plays… miles away, he implies, from the evil he always knew existed in the world.

"I am very keen to develop the playwright's ability. I know I'm pretty good at the technical side - I've practically nothing else to show! What's always worried me is that I shouldn't let this skill interfere with my involvement with the people I'm… trailing. It's so easy to keep my mind in bottom gear and cruise around, chug-chug, not doing anything. I suppose in the last few years I've been like a man who's now learned to drive. Now I know I can take corners while keeping my mind on other things. I can keep my eye on the road, and it's no longer necessary to look down at the gear-box to see what it's doing." Now, in fact, he can give his natural melancholy full rein.

There is no knowing what Alan Ayckbourn will do next. Nothing would surprise me, not even if he experimented with expressionism. Since he was fascinated by Peter Hall's
Oresteia, I would not put it beyond him to explore the use of masks, always of profound interest to theatre pioneers. He seems more and more to be taking risks, sounding a deeper strain, exploring further the dark side of the moon.

Website Notes:
[1] The National Theatre's production of
Way Upstream was notorious for its technical issues including flooding the electrical room at the venue. A full account of the problems which affected the play can be found here.
A Trip To Scarborough is actually set in three time periods, the 1800 of the original play by R.B. Sheridan, 1942 during World War II and the present day.

Copyright: The Daily Telegraph. 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.