Interview: Sunday Times (3 October 1999)

This interview was published in the Sunday Times on 3 October 1999.

Arise, Sir Laughalot

by Bryan Appleyard

In a rehearsal room in Kennington, Sir Alan Ayckbourn is rocking back and forth and nodding, a slight smile on his lips. Periodically he dips into a little plastic bucket of sweets. He is watching the cast run through his new play, Comic Potential, and he is living every line. Indeed, when David Soul, as the wrecked film director Chandler Tate, speaks, Ayckbourn mouths every word. He chuckles when I point this out to him later.

"Yes, Yes. There's some of me in Chandler. I was barking him in there." It's Ayckbourn's 53rd play
[1] and, after a run at Guildford, it transfers to the West End. It has already run at his home theatre in Scarborough, of course, and he knows it off by heart and plainly loves it. Yet he directs his cast with a light, amiable touch, taking them aside and murmuring his demands as if passing on gossip.

"Directors have to make you want to come back tomorrow," he explains later. "The actors have got to go through all that agony, angst and tension, and they've got to feel they're doing it because they love doing it." Ayckbourn was 60 this year and he wears his age with happy, theatrical indignity. Now very portly, he is wearing an over-tight T-shirt with a cartoon cat on the front and equally over-tight cargo pants. After the run-through, he struggles into my car, gasping and laughing at himself. As we drive to his riverside flat in Wapping, he chortles and giggles his way through his current favourite list of contemporary insanities - mobile phones with earpieces, absurd running shoes, the fabulous riches of the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent, and morris dancing.

At the flat we sit in black director's chairs and watch the river. And he talks, volubly and generously, first about why he set this play in the future.

"Well, I wanted to write a play about the nature of being human, and so I came up with this
Pygmalion-esque story about a boy who falls in love with an android. I don't specify the time, but it's probably closer than we think. I think there are two things that separate us from the animals - the ability to fall in love and a sense of humour, and it's no coincidence that the two are so closely linked. Look at those lonely-hearts ads - they all demand GSOH - good sense of humour. They think they could love someone as long as they could make them laugh."

Like all his other plays, C
omic Potential is a dark comedy, this time about machines - robot actors called actoids - one of which becomes human, and then something rather worse. It is a public-issue play but it is also a private apologia. In the mouth of Chandler, Ayckbourn places a justification of his own career - "Who cares if it's an actoid, a person or a performing parrot? If it makes you laugh, treasure it. Tragedy? You can get that in the street being run over." He laughs when I mention the line. "It was to answer all those people who keep asking me why I don't write a serious play. I'm very happy to be privileged enough to write comedy. It doesn't mean seriousness has to go out of the window." In spite of his self-deprecating laughter, it is a sensitive point.

Since he first developed his mature style with
Relatively Speaking in 1965, Ayckbourn has had to struggle to be taken seriously. Relatively Speaking itself was a kind of joke. That was an age dominated by Osborne and Pinter, and the young Ayckbourn was as much under their spell as anybody. Then the director Stephen Joseph, his mentor, bet him he couldn't write a well-made play in the Rattigan mould. "He said, 'If you want to break all the rules of playwriting, might I suggest you try to establish in your mind what they are?' So I tossed off what I thought was this rubbish in two weeks. I was so ashamed of it. It even had french windows in it. I mean, there were all the plays with people slagging off their mothers, and I had these women asking, 'Are you staying for tea?'"

The problem was, it didn't look like art with a capital A, and even when, with
Absurd Person Singular, Ayckbourn began to attract highbrow attention, there were many who remained convinced that it wasn't. Po-faced Penguin Books even refused to publish his plays on the grounds that they were "not of sufficient literary merit". They ought to be ashamed of themselves.

For Ayckbourn is art, but of a specifically pre-modern kind. He loves the traditional forms and conventions both of theatre and life. In
Comic Potential, for example, he delights in having a custard pie onstage for ages before it is actually smashed into the baddie's face, and love in his drama is what it used to be - a delirious obsession rather than a pathology. Unlike the radicals and modernists, he doesn't wish to destroy these conventions but rather to toy with them, playing games with expectations and exposing the deep comedy of the ordinary. The artist to whom he is closest is Alfred Hitchcock, another brilliant user of conventional form.

Perhaps the deeper point is that he is a traditional artist in that he is deadly serious about the place of his art in the world. He believes in theatre as a great fortress of authentic experience in a rapidly fragmenting world. "People aren't where they are anymore, they're always somewhere else. Like those mobile phones with earpieces - you think someone's talking to you and they're talking to somebody in Edinburgh. And all this hysteria about the internet. People say you can look at a pair of shoes on the screen and turn them through 180 degrees. No, no, that's not the point. You want to go to Bluewater and look at the shoes and laugh at some idiot trying on trousers that are too tight for him. That is what shopping's about - it's about people.

"And that's what my sort of theatre is about - sitting and watching something live, among live people. If you're moved to tears by something, you're always aware that there's another person on the other side also moved to tears. It's a double thing - I'm human, you're human, we all feel the same." You can always, he says, tell the difference between a film audience and a theatre audience. The former come out looking mildly hypnotised, the latter leave chattering and arguing.

Ayckbourn's fear of fragmentation is real and deeply felt, and it is most commonly expressed in his fear for the theatre. He feels hardworking regional managements are increasingly badly served by the Arts Council and local authorities, and he worries that young writers are not getting the kind of persistent backing he got from Stephen Joseph. A key element of his traditionalism is that artists should slave away incessantly at their art. "Why hasn't Patrick Marber written four more plays since
Closer? Somebody should be pushing him hard. There's been a three - or four - year gap. To me, that's extraordinary." He sees the world as growing less hospitable to art and creativity in general. "I have this great suspicion that the accountants are just waiting to pounce all the time. They have a pronunciation unit at the BBC which people used to ring up to check on foreign words. Well, now they charge the producers £10 for each call, so nobody uses it. And drama producers can't afford to rent studios to do plays in. That is a house entirely divided against itself."

Ayckbourn's life is one of our greatest national bulwarks against fragmentation. Scarborough is still his home and the venue for all his new plays. He still mulls over his themes for 11 months of the year and takes one month off to compose - two weeks to decoke and two weeks to write. He still sets himself fierce deadlines by having his title ready and the posters printed before he has put a word on the page. He particularly likes the title of
Absurd Person Singular, precisely because it was just snatched off the shelf - it has no relevance whatsoever to the play.[2] And, above all, he still has absolute faith in the central human reality of comedy.

"The best comedy," he says, "is when you come out in the interval and you say to someone, 'Did you see that?' And, of course, they did. But it was so delicately done, the actors and the director have been clever enough to put it just so you couldn't miss it, but you still felt it was meant for you. It's terribly important, we need to laugh."

It is the delicacy, the cleverness he loves - he hates broad, in-your-face gags - and, like all the best people, he knows that the sublime Buster Keaton is infinitely superior to the moralising Chaplin. Best of all, he loathes George Bernard Shaw. This is one good bloke. I raise my bottle of beer to him.

Website Notes:
Comic Potential is actually Alan Ayckbourn’s 52nd play.
[2] Not only does the title
Absurd Person Singular have nothing to do with the play, it was originally intended for an entirely different play which the playwright never wrote; so fond was he of the title, he kept it for the play he wrote instead.

Copyright: Sunday 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.