Interview: Scarborough Evening News (1987)

This interview was published in the Scarborough Evening News on 29 July 1987.

New Directions

by Jeannie Swales

Alan Ayckbourn is renowned for
writing plays that push theatre companies to the very limits of their ingenuity. There was the famous Intimate Exchanges, in which two actors played five characters apiece, in a play with 16 possible endings. There was Taking Steps, with the action on several different floors of a house, but all staged on one level. And stage managers the world over must have cursed him for Way Upstream, the play which partly floods the stage and brings in a real cabin cruiser as its main prop.

His latest play - his 34th - is premiered at the
Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round, Scarborough, tomorrow, and promises to stretch his considerable talents in yet another direction - into the mystical, technical world of computers and robotics.

"
Henceforward… is set slightly in the future," he says. "It's sort of different, and I hope it will be funny. It's underlying theme, if you like, is the nature of the artist, and his personal relationships - in this case, the hero is a composer who is unable to conduct his personal affairs with any sort of success.

"It's an ironic fable. I've rather taken to writing, not quite morality plays, but certainly close to it. My last play,
A Small Family Business was seen by some as a morality play, and I hope this will be too."

The play contains, he says, all his "usual" themes - how people treat each other - and how they would like to see the people around them behave.

"We all try to alter each other subtlety, and this man has the chance to change the people around him completely. But it's like
Pygmalion - try and alter someone, and they either become a monster, or lose their individuality."

The play came about, he says, because of his growing sense of the dehumanisation of modern living.

"You see children who spend hours just staring at a computer screen. There's a certain feeling of being overwhelmed by machines."

It is, he says, necessarily very technical, and includes the use of videos and computers. And the composer's music, composed by taking natural sounds and feeding them through a special computer, has been produced by his regular partner and musical director, Paul Todd, on a highly specialised piece of machinery.

"It's called a synclavier, and there's only about four of them in the country - costing around £¼m each! Paul worked with a company in London who have one, and let us use it free of charge, and we developed a programme for it called Jasmine. I suppose it's what you'd call a state of the art digital musical computer, it samples sounds, recreates them on the keyboard, all sorts of things, for the price of a ticket!"

I ask him why he always writes plays which demand such theatrical wizardry.

"I try and use the theatre," he says. "I'm very theatre-minded, I don't think I could write for any other medium. But people always tend to think of the theatre as very much a verbal medium. Of course, it is that - but it's also very visual. I'm often quite disappointed if I see a play which could have been done just as well on the radio. You know, it's nice if you see the faces, but not essential. Really, it's a multi-media thing - there's sound, even smell if you want. And it's the very liveness of theatre that interests me."

A playwright, he feels, must essentially be a good story-teller, a spinner of yarns who can hold an audience. He remembers how the theatre's founder, Stephen Joseph, once told him that a playwright should be saying to audiences through his work, "I'm glad you're here, now gather round."

Ayckbourn is in Scarborough at the moment to direct his new play, but still has obligations to fulfil in his two-year stint at the
National Theatre.

That sabbatical was due to end in October, but he will now stay on to direct a new production of
'Tis Pity She's A Whore, John Ford's Jacobean tragedy. Once the play opens next February, he will return to Scarborough as full-time artistic director, although he hopes to carry on doing some work at the National.

"I think it's good for the theatre here, and for me, that I occasionally get away - I bring back fresh ideas."

A Small Family Business, currently playing to great acclaim at the National's Olivier Theatre, is unlikely ever to be seen in Scarborough, and certainly not at the Stephen Joseph. It was written with a proscenium arch theatre in mind, and wouldn't work in the round. The set, says Ayckbourn, "is like a doll's house, with the front taken off. It's on two different levels."

Copyright: Scarborough Evening 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.