Interview: Country House & Interiors (1988)

This interview was published in the December issue of Country Homes & Interiors.

Between The Acts

by Caroline Suter

The Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round lies next to an Alcatraz of a Tesco in the seaside resort of Scarborough, but manages to ignore it quite successfully. It occupies a Victorian building, once a school, and its Artistic Director is that familiar chronicler of the genteel knife in the back, Alan Ayckbourn.

Staff perch in tiny offices up narrow stairways; there is a cupboard sized room for props and a spartan rehearsal room. Like most theatres backstage, everything is battered, cramped and dusty. Alan Ayckbourn's office is positively luxurious in comparison. It has a window that actually opens, a bowl of fruit, a glass topped table, sofa and chairs.

He has worked in the theatre since the age of seventeen (he will be 50 next April), has directed over 100 productions and written 36 plays. His 34th,
Henceforward..., opens at London's Vaudeville Theatre on 16 November with Ian McKellen and Jane Asher. When we meet, Ayckbourn is busy getting a total of four productions for the 1988 summer season at Scarborough on stage. He has the air of a man with a coiled spring inside him, but he couldn't be nicer, more helpful, more patient.

Henceforward... asks two questions," he begins. "Is what the creative artist does relevant to what goes on, or is it a sideshow; and, as technology continues to grow, will the creative artist's role still be there? I don't really answer them except to say that there are times when one feels, as a so-called creative artist, totally irrelevant. In the nuclear shelter, I probably wouldn't get precedence over the plumber. Creative artists often do detach themselves from the real world, and they plunder from it quite freely. People tell you things and then look at you reproachfully as they see it all trotted back.

"Jerome (the hero of
Henceforward...) is a composer who makes sound by all the modern methods that render most musicians redundant. He uses human voices and to do so, he leaves the tape recorders running all day and all night so nobody in any room of the house is safe. As a result his wife and daughter have upped and left. The play is about his attempts to get his family back - if nobody's talking into your tape recorder, you're stuck.

'It's quite bleak for a play of mine, but it's quite funny. He's inherited an electronic nursemaid with a tendency to murder the children it looks after, so he's got this homicidal tin lady hanging around. He's moulded her into the shape of his wife so he can abuse her in the evenings. The play's full of fables and parables, about how men try to alter women. I'm a great science fiction fan, and it's got bits of that, a touch of
Psycho, and of The Fall of the House of Usher, a very gothick play. It's quite a departure for me, known as I am for people bickering over dinner."

Many feel his plays are getting blacker -
A Small Family Business, for instance, deals with blackmail, drug addiction and murder. Certainly they are harder and tougher than of old.

"The early plays, like
Relatively Speaking, are not by anyone I ever knew, but there it is. As you search for new material, you enter areas that are not obvious comic material. I've probably already said all that I can about people living together."

He himself lives with actress Heather Stoney in the old part of Scarborough, in a Georgian house with Victorian additions, garden and cat called Bollinger. The house, once a vicarage, previously belonged to
Stephen Joseph, founder of the theatre Ayckbourn has run since 1972. By origin he is Home Counties, born in London in 1939 and moving with his mother to Staines, then Sussex, when his parents separated.

Although Ayckbourn's arrival in Scarborough as untrained stage manager
[1], was a "geographical accident", Scarborough, not London, is now the centre of his life. His plays are premiered here, and its audience remains his touchstone. "It has a broad spectrum of people. I rather like the balancing act of presenting, I hope, intelligent plays that interest them, and keeping within the wide taste range. It means I can't get too rarefied. I should see the audience dying before my eyes."

His plays and productions are remarkable for the unobtrusiveness of their crafting, but craft there is nonetheless.

"Plays need constructing, they need narrative and character development and those silly old fashioned things. You can see people wrestling to stay awake after a minute so you keep something moving in front of their eyes - like children. If people want to know what's going on they'll probably stay awake."

A new play takes a week or so to write. "I take about four weeks off and spend two and a half or three of them mooching about, clearing the everyday fuzz, trying to find what's going on underneath. The writing happens very fast. It's tough, because you're holding so many strands at once and pushing them into some kind of shape without dropping any of it. I'm always in all my plays and I'm in most characters. It's the incidents that belong to other people's lives. If I'm writing a woman I write most of her from me and take the externals from someone I know."

As a
director, he says he takes control in an oblique way. "Actors will do their own play on the night, but if you've treated them right they'll do it in the way we agreed they would. I do sometimes show how I'd like things, but I do it so ineptly only a lunatic would try and follow me."

Of his two year stint at the
National Theatre (which ended earlier this year) he says he enjoyed it, despite the "people hostile" building. "It gave me the chance to work with actors like Michael Gambon, Simon Cadell and Polly Adams. A lot of that company are old Scarborians, so that was nice."

Michael Gambon has "kept popping up in my plays", from
The Norman Conquests in the 1970s, to Ayckbourn's production of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge this year. There is a strong rapport between the two.

"We're both rather private people - Gambon is worse than me in a way." Ayckbourn relishes directing him. "He's like a high powered car, there's always a bit more to overtake with. He has enormous strength; he brings people up with him. It's like being given a wonderful toy to play with."

Of him Gambon says, "You feel secure with Alan. He's very creative and very very practical. He builds bridges for you and helps you cross them."

After "toddling to London" to direct the opening of
Henceforward..., Ayckbourn returns to Scarborough to direct the winter season, which includes a play he is writing for children - "something I would have liked to see if I was a kid" - then he commutes again to work for Peter Hall's new venture at London's Theatre Royal in the Haymarket. [2]

"The idea is that I do two plays a year for three years: new work I hope, and perhaps a Chekhov, Ibsen, Somerset Maugham, good plays I have no ambitions in the cinema or TV, although I watch tv and films like a maniac. The theatre's the only thing for me."

Website Notes:
[1] Although Alan did not formally train to be a stage manager - he went straight from school into his first professional job - he had spent the previous year working at theatres in Leatherhead and Worthing learning the role of stage manager on the job.
[2] Sadly this venture with Peter Hall did not come to fruition.

Copyright: Country Homes & Interiors. 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.