Interview: The Times (2 January 2006)

This interview was published in The Times on 2 January 2006.

Obdurate Person Singular

by Judy Meewezen

“I don’t think the West End is a very friendly place for theatre at the moment,” says Sir Alan Ayckbourn, “unless the plays are loaded with international stars. They seem to need them.”

It’s a gloomy statement from a man who for decades has been Britain’s most successful playwright. But, as West End floorboards squeak under the heels of Woody Harrelson, Richard E. Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas - with Kathleen Turner and Jeremy Irons soon to come - Ayckbourn’s own output is strictly for the regions. And has been now for four years.

His 69th play,
Improbable Fiction, is about to go on tour. But the closest it will get to Shaftesbury Avenue will be Guildford. What’s happened? Are the new plays not good enough? Is he running out of passion, a casualty of fashion, or has he willingly marginalised himself from commercial imperatives he sees as debased?

Talking in his office at the
Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, Ayckbourn, 66, looks nothing like a spent force. A bear-like man, much loved by his staff, he combines a theatre manager’s attention to detail - he keeps an eye on everything from trap doors to the decor in the atrium - with a writer-director’s concern for the big picture. “Theatre,” he booms, “is a precinct, a place where you can go and get angry and discuss things.”

But it’s a precinct that’s easier to marshal on his own turf than it is in the West End. When he took last year’s show
Private Fears in Public Places to Off Broadway, critics raved about both the play and “the best ensemble playing in New York for decades”. Yet its London run was at the tiny Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond.

It’s hard to put on a West End show without stars. It’s also hard to put on a West End show with stars: “Commercial theatre managers need their actors for six months, if they are going to break even. Nowadays actors - or their agents - try to get three month contracts. They go on, they get their reviews and they get out.”

When Ayckbourn began writing 35 years ago, the climate was different. There was a steady stable of actors “who could fill the theatre, strong stars like Robert Morley, Celia Johnson, Michael Hordern and Richard Briers. Slowly they started to bring in telly actors. They have a fantastic charisma on screen, but they are too small - and it is a totally different way of acting.”

Before the practice of celebrity casting became, in Ayckbourn’s eyes, malignant, a famous television star was cast in one of his plays. “It wasn’t a big part, but the audience was constantly waiting for her to appear. The play became misshapen, because when that actress wasn’t on stage, the audience thought it couldn’t be very important. And then she would come on and say, ‘More tea?’ and they would all lean forward.”

Some of Ayckbourn’s pieces do operate as star vehicles. The central role in
Woman in Mind has been taken by Julia McKenzie, Stockard Channing and Helen Mirren. But increasingly he focuses on the ensemble.

Improbable Fiction, Arnold, the genial host of a writers’ group, composes instruction manuals. The ambitious second act has him grappling with the insanity of a world that’s gone mad with fiction, jumping from genre to genre. It’s an extraordinary role, but the playwright argues that giving it to a star would throw the show off-kilter. “Arnold is by a short head the lead character,” he says, “but there are six others, who have equal claim to the stage.”

Ayckbourn has a proudly artisan approach that is informed by his work as a director. “As a writer, there’s a sense you belong on the shop floor,” he says. “It’s important to have that experience: look at Shakespeare.”

Being his own boss at Scarborough since 1971
[1] has enabled him to follow his own path. “I had the great luck of inheriting a theatre and I’ve never had arguments about what is done here. It’s a big responsibility. You have no checks on what you do, which can be detrimental. Of course there are plays that have sunk without trace. On the other hand, I believe in the right to fail. In London, you feel your stock is going down if your play doesn’t run for very long.”

But could we ever see Ayckbourn back in London? “Only with my own company,” he says firmly.
[2] His productions are created in the round in Scarborough. Going into the West End inevitably means re-staging for a proscenium arch. Many have transferred comfortably. Some, notably The Revengers’ Comedies and Comic Potential, were soufflés in the round that mysteriously turned to toffee on West End stages.

And if Ayckbourn has had his fingers burnt by producers, it’s partly because of his own determination to keep his work intact. Often, because of the way he develops shows for his ensemble, a production works only in the context of one or more other plays. One of his most daring experiments in form,
House & Garden, consists of two simultaneous and interlocking plays, one set in a drawing room, the other in a garden. The plays can be performed only in a venue where there are two substantial stages.

Having seen the Scarborough production, Trevor Nunn welcomed both pieces to the National Theatre in 2000, where they were well received. “If Trevor had been handed the scripts, he might not have taken them,” says Ayckbourn. “You can’t always rely on the National Theatre. It depends who’s there.”

Ten years earlier, the artistic director at the time, Richard Eyre, wanted the playwright to condense the two
Revengers’ Comedies into a single play. When Ayckbourn refused, his regular West End producer Michael Codron took both pieces to the Strand Theatre, where they had mixed success, despite starring Griff Rhys Jones and Joanna Lumley.

The long relationship between Ayckbourn and Codron survived the experience, but began to falter with
Comic Potential in 1999. Their last production together was a trilogy of inter-dependent plays for an ensemble of actors. Ayckbourn remains bitter about the experience: “The more I think about it, the more I believe there was never any intention to stage all three.”

RolePlay, FlatSpin and GamePlan opened at the Duchess Theatre in 2002. “Even though GamePlan is the better piece, RolePlay attracted the best reviews. So they cut the performances of the other two plays right back, which meant it was very difficult for people to see all of them.” Ayckbourn has not worked with Codron since.

Following the huge success of the Scarborough production of
Private Fears in Public Places, he was invited to direct it on Broadway. But when Ayckbourn went over to cast, the producers decided it wasn’t financially viable. “It’s a little tiny play, a six hander. You put that on in a 2,000-seat theatre, you pay $90 for a seat and you’re sitting miles away - and you could see The Producers instead. Why take a sports-car engine and put it into a limousine and then complain?” [3]

Despite his concerns, Ayckbourn seems buoyant, optimistic about the future of theatre. For London he proposes a revival of strong repertory companies. And the collapse of his latest Broadway venture has an advantage - the possibility of play No 70: “I was going to be in New York for two months. I really thought there might not be time for a new play this year. Suddenly I have this stretch of time to write.” No 71 is also a twinkle in Ayckbourn's eye: “Regent’s Park Theatre have asked me to write something for their 75th anniversary. Goodness knows what I’ll do. Maybe I’ll surprise them and set it in a cellar or something.”

Website Notes:
[1] Alan Ayckbourn became Artistic Director of the company in 1972, not 1971.
[2] In 2007, Alan Ayckbourn would allow revivals of his plays to once again be produced in the West End, but he continues to refuse to let his more recent work be produced in the West End. He also returned to the West End in 2009 with the Scarborough company for an acclaimed transfer of his play
Woman In Mind at the Vaudeville Theatre.
[3] The Broadway production of
Private Fears In Public Places was initially intended for the Helen Hayes Theatre and Alan was initially interested in directing a new production with an American cast. To this end, auditions were held and schedules drawn up. At which point, the producers announced they wanted to move to a larger venue and Alan put a stop to the production, feeling it would do no the production no favours and only lead to poor comparisons to the original Off Broadway production.
[4] Although Regent's Park Theatre did ask Alan Ayckbourn to write a play for the 75th anniversary, sadly it never came to fruition.

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.