Interview: Alan Ayckbourn's Official Website (2011)

This interview took place between Alan Ayckbourn and his archivist Simon Murgatroyd on 17 May 2011 for the playwright's website.

Alan Ayckbourn's Official Website: 2011 Interview
by Simon Murgatroyd

Simon Murgatroyd: Let’s begin with
Dear Uncle, your adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which was originally commissioned for the West End, how did that come about?
Alan Ayckbourn:
Dear Uncle was commissioned in late 2008 by the producers David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers. I got a phone call the day after The Norman Conquests opened at the Old Vic. David had the director Matthew Warchus in the office with him and was quite excited by the thought of doing a Chekhov revival because Matthew had said to him, he had approached The Norman Conquests as if they were Chekhov. The conversation then went in reverse with Matthew saying he’d like to do a Chekhov as an Alan Ayckbourn play. So they asked me to do a version of Uncle Vanya and I said: “Wait a minute, there are some very, very good versions of Vanya, what do you want mine to be?” David just said: “I’d like it to be you” and then Matthew chimed in: “Don’t make it too Russian!” I said: “OK, I’ll do that.”

Was there any particular reason David Pugh suggested Uncle Vanya?
I think it was the small cast which rather appealed to the West End, rather than - say - Three Sisters which has is a bit larger!

And it has had a rather convoluted journey to the Stephen Joseph Theatre.
It was destined for the West End and was just floating around; There was supposed to be this exciting cast being set up for the West End - Ralph Fiennes and Ken Stott - but Matthew Warchus got more commitments and we were just waiting. Matthew eventually said to David Pugh, I feel terrible about this as we got the ball rolling, why don’t you ask Alan if he’d like to do it in Scarborough.

Have you had any previous experience of the play?
Uncle Vanya is one of my favourite plays. It’s a lovely piece. It was a play I’d directed in 1972 in Scarborough and liked very much from one of my great all-time heroes.

Where did you begin with the adaptation?
I got a literal translation of the play from Vera Liber, a lady I’d worked with before on Ostrovsky’s The Forest. This was written as faithfully to the original as possible and is quite nice and simple. Vera Liber writes without any judgement as far as I can see; she’s also quite passionate about the precise meanings of words. I then started working on it and I just pulled a little bit of string and unravelled one of the names. A bit like a sweater, you unpick it and you end up with a ball of wool and you have to knit a new sweater. Same ingredients and essentially the same characters, but I just moved away from Chekhov towards England. Eventually I finished moving the period to 1935 in the Lake District, which is as near to Russia as I’ve ever been!

Did you have any trepidation about adapting such a classic play?
One always has trepidations. The closer you get to the original writer the more nervous you become, because you feel you may just be treading on his heels. So my first instinct was to move as far geographically away from Russia as possible; staying within my own field of knowledge. I’m always a tremendous believer in never writing something which you know nothing about.

The result is a play set in the Lake District in 1935, which feels very true to the original play.
Having plumped fairly randomly on the Lake District as a setting in 1935, I discovered during research there were these foolish policies of replacing the Lake District’s trees with pine trees in the hope that no-one would notice and therefore destroying most of the natural wildlife that goes with it! I found myself in a local Lake District’s hornet’s nest as there were a lot of people getting quite agitated at that time. I thought that’s quite interesting as in the original play, there was this - at the time - slightly quirky man who had a passion for forests and didn’t want to see them destroyed; I think some divine spirit was guiding me! That particular theme, of course, has grown increasingly relevant and urgent.
So the period fitted the play quite well. It also meant the protagonist, now Ash rather than Astrov, had been through something quite appalling and was old enough to have experienced World War I as a doctor; which obviously paralleled the nightmare of the original Astrov having dealt with peasants in appalling conditions in the original play. If that wasn’t enough, there’s also the dramatic knowledge that storm clouds were again gathering over Europe at that time and that Hitler was being quite active even during this balmy English summer. This all made for quite a nice parallel with
Uncle Vanya, but I was now in a world I understood and empathised with very much.

You’ve mentioned changing the names of the characters, was it difficult to write the characters themselves?
You begin adapting by staying very close to the characters and trying to echo their intentions. Then as you springboard off them, you begin to enjoy them and they become part of you. It’s a very strange process because you feel like a cuckoo in someone else’s nest, rehatching their eggs. I began to hear the voices of the characters as I would in one of my own plays and they became very distinctive.

Other than the time and setting, did you deviate from the play?
The one deviation I was very conscious of making was the character of Sonya who I made younger; in the original she was nearing what would be described as spinsterhood and in love with a man who was older than her and never really noticed her - rather cruelly I think. I made her a 16 year old schoolgirl who has everything to live for. She develops the same sort of passion for Doctor Ash as Sonya did for Astrov in the original, except in this case it’s got that comic twist that he never really considers her. This rather mawkish schoolgirl is pining around him and he can’t think of anything to say to her except, 'how are things at school?' She’s agonized but I think in a sense that makes her slightly less tragic and the emphasis is very much thrown onto Uncle Marcus.

Did you enjoy adapting the play?
It was quite fun writing it. As you appreciate, it was written a long time ago - although I have tweaked it a bit. When we read for the auditions recently, which is the very first time you hear it read out loud by professional actors, hearing it read brought back all the fun!

How have you approached directing the play?
I’m just directing it as I would one of my own plays. I look for the same seriousness and the same fun. There’s a clue to how to approach Uncle Vanya in the original; if you read a play that at the third act curtain has a man running in being pursued by another man with a loaded revolver having just fired and then says “Missed. Again!” You know this is a comedy!!

You’re writing is frequently compared to Chekhov, do you think that’s a fair comparison in terms of what you’re trying to achieve?
In that Chekhov tried to address a rather broad canvas of emotions, I think it’s a fair comparison. But the knowledge of his plays nudges me to be more bold - just to mix darkness and light, but I guess that was always in me.

It must be difficult knowing how this play will be received, what are your hopes for the play?
I hope there’s an audience there who will also come blind and one can say afterward to them, you know you’ve been watching a Russian classic! When you got to see a Chekhov play, you don’t know what you’re going to get because there are so many ways of handling it; it could be a very agonising evening with a lot of breast-beating or it could be an evening where it’s painfully funny. It all depends on the approach. At best, I think it’s a mixture of both.
Dear Uncle is my own version and I still feel it’s very much Chekhov because nothing is ever forced out of its natural role. There are plenty of versions of Uncle Vanya you can see and if you want to see one that’s more accurate, then there are those. But this is my take on the play.

Moving on to your latest play, Neighbourhood Watch, what can you tell us about the play?
I think it’s all in the title.  It’s a cautionary play. It addresses modern hang-ups such as law and order, health and safety. Are we safe in our beds when there are lawless youths roaming the streets whilst the police seem powerless? It’s tapping into that sort of fear.

Is it as dark as it sounds?
It’s in my dark farce mode. I’ve always been interested in how, out of tiny things, wars are often fought. Whenever history is examined, you always say: Is that really what started it? Helen of Troy was responsible for an awful lot! Neighbourhood Watch begins with a genuine misunderstanding where no-one is prepared to stand down and the reason becomes all but forgotten, but nonetheless  causes a war.

And you’re tackling this from the perspective as something as apparently innocuous as a neighbourhood watch scheme?
It’s about committees which have a way of being taken over by lunatics and extremists. Sane people often haven’t the patience or staying power to serve on committees. So the people in charge of them are often those with nothing better to do but manipulate other people’s lives. Then there are sub-committees, which are answerable to nobody and do all the work from finance to, in this case, retribution! Very few normal people volunteer for those, as that’s another evening out of their lives, so you find people volunteering for sub-committees who shouldn’t be in charge of a box of matches let alone the future of an estate. (For more information, please see my earlier play Ten Times Table!)

What quickly emerges from this scheme is a particularly extreme British version of a gated community, do you think that’s a real possibility?
There is a sense of impotence these days, an instinct to build little fences around ourselves. Because my English people are inherently polite people, they very rarely contradict each other and are happy to go along with things until, usually, it’s far too late. I don’t think we’ll ever become an extreme fascist state in this country over night, but we might over the years just drift into it and people will then ask how on earth did we get here? The English are not for turning! But gently nudging? The English are for nudging.

One of the ideas of the play is our perception of real versus imagined threats, do you think that is particularly pertinent to society today?
I think so, because we are increasingly distancing ourselves from reality. We get our information from newspapers or TV or the internet; we are aware of things that are happening but since we don’t witness them first hand relying instead on news media, often amplified, this compounds the sense that society is breaking down. I think there’s too much information which we can’t process fast enough - no wonder we’re in danger of getting badly confused!
I’ve been aware that once I’m out of the stream - and when one is a writer, you do tend to keep dipping out and in - the world seems completely demented. Then when you get back to reality, you realise most of your fears were ludicrously exaggerated. Yes, it is risky to walk down certain streets even in Scarborough alone at night but society is not breaking down.

How would you compare Neighbourhood Watch to your last play, Life of Riley?
I describe some of my plays as watercolours and some as oils. I think Life of Riley was probably more a watercolour and this is more towards oil – maybe a pastel!  It’s slightly bolder and has some extremely dark shadows in it, but also some light moments.
Life of Riley was rather oblique. A lot of people who saw it didn’t quite perceive what was happening and were looking for twists which weren’t there. This one is much more in your face!

The play centres on Martin, who’s a very interesting character. He’s definitely one of your good men, but a flawed man all the same not least because of his affair with a married woman.
I think his relationship with Amy is one of two opposites. She’s like a very small peacock in a very small pen. We all know people who are outrageous, but only because everything else is so grey; if you put them or Amy among the Lady Gaga set, they’d vanish completely. Amy is only outrageous to that small extent and because she swears and behaves slightly garishly. Martin genuinely feels he can help her and bring a little light into her life, while she’s attracted to a man who’s possibly a million miles from her. It’s a weird love story.
Martin’s interesting and I like him very much. He’s got a nice quiet sense of humour and is a good foil for his sister Hilda, who has absolutely no sense of humour at all! Matthew Cottle is playing Martin and he’s lovely as he’s so immediately likeable; anything he does he’s going to be liked. I think it’s quite tricky to find someone who won’t appear smug, soft or complacent about themselves as I wanted to show a person with genuine belief and goodness, which is very hard to write and show on stage.

Neighbourhood Watch is also going to transfer to New York as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival in November, what are your thoughts on touring to your plays to New York?
New York offers, through the 59E59 Theaters, the chance to take out to a wider audience, the original productions with the company that started life in Scarborough.
I’ve always believed that back in the old days when we toured abroad more frequently, what happened was two fold. We benefited enormously because although we were just another show in Scarborough terms - when we took it on tour by the time you get to Brussels, it’s the first time anyone’s seen it or seen this company. One often got incredibly well praised and certainly incredibly well received.
It made one realise the quality of the work and during the last three visits we’ve had to the 59E59, we’ve had a lot of accolades and a lot of positive press because New Yorkers are never backward in coming forward and have really enthused.
We take a show from Scarborough to New York with the same company and the same production and it gets fantastic reviews. When we there with
My Wonderful Day in 2009, people were screaming out of their minds with praise and that is good for Scarborough and the theatre. It gives the company, not to say me, a little shot in the arm occasionally.

2011 also marks your 50th anniversary as a professional director, what are your views on directing after five decades of experience?
I think that, like writing, probably the less you do the better - not in terms of frequency but in terms of when you do in the rehearsal room. Having said that, it depends on correctly selecting the little you do do! It’s the same as my writing; I think the plays are getting slightly less wordy, which I think is probably because I’ve become slightly more particular about the selection of the words and when people choose not to speak. Directing for me now is very close to writing.
I think my principle with directing at the moment - and which has been with me for a very long time now - is you don’t employ a particular actor only to tell them precisely what you want them to do. Why bother to employ any actor? Why not read it yourself? What you can do though is be very clever and precise in giving them one or two or at most three really clear key notes, little anecdotes or little suggestions which set them in the right direction and make them work; then the rest of the decisions are theirs. Then it’s just a matter of editing the decisions they’re having second thoughts about.

Neighbourhood Watch not only marks your 75th play, but it is also the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s 300th commissioned play. Given the state of British theatre, this seems a remarkable achievement.
It’s a fantastic record, but I think it’s very sad that due to entirely financial considerations - which are probably more acute now than ever before - there is less and less opportunity to produce new writing because a new play by an unknown writer is a profound risk. I think the difficulty is that with the shrinking of the repertoire, if you’re only doing five plays a year, then a new play is a fifth of your repertoire. In the old days at Westwood, we did ten plays a year, so one new play was a tenth of your repertoire - tiny by comparison and so it was acceptable to take those risks.
I’m a profound believer that new writing is the lifeblood of the theatre and as one sees nowadays, there are more and more revivals. All the new writers are now driven into fringe venues or the last two subsidised bastions, the Royal Court Theatre and the National Theatre, where they can still afford to stage new writing.
It’s difficult to stage new writing, but still possible, you just have to think laterally: if you only have so much cloth to cut, then you need to commission things to fit it. You say I’d like to do five new plays and they’ve all got to have four people in them and they’ve all got to be set in a football ground and let’s see what happens.
But I think I’m one of the last writers who will work like that. The Stephen Joseph Theatre’s Artistic Director Chris Monks has already murmured to me about a revival next year and could I write a new one for the same number of people; they’ll all be the same sex and roughly the same age. That was true this year and was true last year and you just balance the two plays.
In a sense, I get used to writing to a certain criteria, which is difficult to find in many writers today. I’ve always been against this long-winded writing process where you’re going to workshop it in November, then try it and give it a little run, then a read-through in public and then another workshop in June. What is it? A musical! It’s a play, come on and get it on with it. Thrash it out in rehearsal. Young writers seem to have got into that habit and only a few are really willing to have a go; those are what the late Alan Plater would say are the pros - the rest are just flanneling around.
I guess it’s a matter of responding as much to artistic inspirations as to financial incentive and limitations. I think it’s also true if you can only have, say, three doors, you should only write for three doors. It’s not a huge problem and as a writer these limitations can be quite challenging and interesting to solve.

In an interview on 14 February 2012 with Simon Murgatroyd, Alan Ayckbourn reflected on the success of and reaction to Neighbourhood Watch.

You have another play soon to go into London too with Neighbourhood Watch, which has been incredibly successful. When you wrote it 18 months ago, you can’t have imagined it would get this sort of response or become so pertinent coinciding as it did with the 2011 riots. [1]
It’s interesting because it does present the other side of the coin - which is typical for me - it isn’t about the rioters or the police, it’s about the bystanders who feel that they need to react to events. A lot of my plays are about people on the margins who feel threatened, but who haven’t actually been threatened and who - in the case of
Neighbourhood Watch - somewhat over-react; although you can see why they react the way they do and why they feel events are out of their control.
I think we’ve got a fantastic way of disseminating information these days, partly through the press, partly through the media, partly through the internet and social networking. There is this immediate and somewhat graphic reportage. Yet if you speak to someone and they’re apparently in the middle of a riot or a rumpus, looting and burning of buildings apparently all around them, and say, ‘how are you?’ They’ll probably say, ‘how do you mean? I’ve just been down the pub.’ Television and newspapers often amplify events: a few hundred years ago, you could have a war and half the country wouldn’t even know about it unless a group of blood-stained soldiers trampled through your village, saying, ‘that was a terrible battle up at Bosworth. That was a right pasting.’ Now, of course, you immediately see it on your television or computer screen and think ‘Oh my God! There’s a war! The days of innocence are lost.
It’s all very different and it’s quite a sensitive network now, so if you ‘twang’ the net people notice and because I twanged it early, we got noticed. But then, I think it’s part of your job as writer to have a look at society and either report on directly - such as the Tricycle did with
The Riots, which was a literal transcript of some of the participants - or indirectly as I do and, if necessary, extend it out to its logical conclusion: if this happens, what if this happens. So in a way, Neighbourhood Watch is no different from the new play Surprises, which is me conjecturing again.

How do you think the play’s been received?
It’s had an amazing run and it’s been generally very well received. What’s interesting is I’ve been reading show reports and there have been houses where the audience has been completely stunned by it and sit almost silent! There’s one report where the company manager had to look out and see if there actually was an audience there! Normally though, it gets a vigorous response, sometimes even a riotous one - especially in the places where people reckon they might need to build fences in a few years to keep the undesirables out! There was one woman, who one of our actors over-head saying, we could do with some stocks in our village. That’s a bit creepy - very British.

It is transferring to the Tricycle Theatre in April, how do you think it will be received in London?
Well, it’s got my name on it, so they have been warned! The Tricycle asked me to bring it in though and the Artistic Director Nicolas Kent said he was an enormous fan which was nice. It might surprise audiences, but I hope it’ll entertain them even if perhaps its viewed as a bit lightweight - although its intentions are a bit heavy. Nonetheless to have actually landed in London is great. Being at the Tricycle allows us to keep the simplicity of the production; the West End would have put an unnecessary strain on it.

Website Notes:
[1] Rehearsals for
Neighbourhood Watch began in August 2011 and just as they began, the UK was hit by a surprise and shocking series of riots in major UK cities; these five days marked one of the largest civil disturbances in recent memory in the UK. The pertinency of the play, opening so soon after the riots and with its coincidental theme, was swiftly picked up and covered by the media - although Alan was quick to point out it would be disingenuous to suggest the play was in any way inspired or influenced by real events given it was written nine months before the riots took place.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.