Interview: The Times (14 May 2018)

This page reproduces some of Alan Ayckbourn's significant quotes from the interview.

Clearing out the bottom drawer - the debut plays that are getting an airing

by Dominic Maxwell

Last year Alan Ayckbourn gave theatregoers a rare glimpse - perhaps the last - of his first play. He wrote
The Square Cat in 1959, when he was 19, collaborating with his first wife, Christine Roland, under the pseudonym Roland Allen. This tale of a rock ’n’ roller and a housewife had not been seen anywhere since 1960. Nor, if Ayckbourn has anything to do with it, will it ever be seen again. Still, last September he dug it up as part of a fundraising gala for the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough alongside extracts from some of his 80 other plays. [1]

“We read about five minutes of it,” he says. “I could feel the blush rising and could see the actors looking at me, thinking, ‘You want us to read this out?’ It’s a bit like bringing out your baby snaps. There was a polite ripple of applause. I said, ‘And that explains why that one’s never done now.’ ”

Ayckbourn may not want us looking at his juvenilia, but there are increasing numbers of playwrights whose first tries are getting second chances. In the past three years alone British theatres have given us an Arthur Miller world premiere (his first play,
No Villain, from 1936), Terence Rattigan’s little-known debut (First Episode, not seen since 1938) and a premiere of Harley Granville Barker’s (Agnes Colander, from 1900). Not long before that, the Finborough in Earls Court gave us the first production of Caryl Churchill’s 1972 first play, The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution. Before that it staged the first production for 80 years of Noël Coward’s The Rat Trap.

Now 21st-century names are joining the party.
Not Talking, the first play by Mike Bartlett, is getting its first run at the Arcola in east London. Bartlett is celebrated for his television series Doctor Foster and his play King Charles III, among other more recent achievements. Yet this debut feels like “unfinished business”. He wrote it in 2005, but couldn’t get it staged. However, when Radio 3 broadcast a version of it in 2007, it was his first pay cheque as a playwright.

Part of the reason Bartlett remains proud of
Not Talking is because of what he had to go through to get it on air. He had to cut it from 90 minutes to 60. “That was a real lesson to me. How could you lose a third and make it better? I learnt to go over every line to see what it was doing, whether it was really needed.” It’s a discipline he hopes he has retained.

While Ayckbourn shudders at much of
The Square Cat, he remains glad that it wasn’t the same as everyone else’s first plays at the time: “A young man blaming his mother for all his shortcomings.”

The same goes for Bartlett’s debut, which is about two characters in their eighties and two in their teens and is set against the backdrop of the Iraq war. For a while he felt that made it too outdated to resurrect. “Doing it now, though, it’s a piece of history.” He has left it as it was. “I wrote it when I was 23, 24, and its best things come from being that age.”

Should playwrights tinker with work they revive? Bryony Lavery, whose biggest hit,
Frozen, has just been revived in the West End, was once asked to revive her play Dracula. The director suggested a couple of tweaks. She agreed. “And before you know it,” she says, “I don’t think there was one line left of the original.” Lavery has four new plays on this year, but would be delighted if anyone wanted to revive her first play, I Was Too Young at the Time to Understand Why My Mother Was Crying. Mind you, she says, they would have to go hunting for the script in her archive at De Montfort University in Leicester.

She is not convinced that they would like what they would find there. She started staging plays in the 1970s, but suggests
Origin of the Species from 1984 or Her Aching Heart from 1991 as her first “achieved” plays. Yes, it took that long. “Play writing is a very rocky ride.” Given the chance, she would want to rewrite her early work. “But I couldn’t because I am no longer that dewy-eyed, fresh-faced person. When I wrote My Aching Heart I thought the worst that can happen to you was a broken heart. And now I know the world is harder and darker and meaner than that.”

What if your first play was a hit? Nina Raine, whose play
Consent opens in the West End this week after a run at the National last year, broke through in 2006 with her full-length debut, Rabbit. It reached the West End and New York, had productions around the world, then, in March this year, received a low-key production for a few nights in Walthamstow, northeast London. She wasn’t sure it would still make sense. “I thought, ‘It’s all about sexual politics, and aren’t we all in a different place now?’ But actually it was fine. Both sexes were angry; the women were saying the only place we have power is in sex so we are going to use it; the men were saying they feel oppressed. Nothing has changed.”

She did wonder why none of her characters was talking about Tinder, but they were talking about scratch cards. Does that mean it’s a period piece? “No,” she says, “because we still have scratch cards. It would be a period piece if they were talking about My Space.” If it were to get a bigger revival, though, she is convinced she would need to give it more of a rewrite. “It’s amazing how perishable stuff is.”

Dead playwrights can’t tweak, so have to rely on their estates to protect and promote their work. The literary agent Alan Brodie, who looks after the estates of Rattigan and Coward among others, is happy for directors to look at writers’ earliest works. “Because it shows the development of the writer.” And because the productions tend to be small-scale he feels they can’t damage the writer’s legacy if they go badly.

If they go well, they can put a play back in the canon. Rattigan’s 1939 play
After the Dance had rarely been revived when Benedict Cumberbatch starred in the National’s production in 2010. Rattigan kept it out of his first collection of plays, unhappy after the first production closed early. The National’s production won four Olivier awards, which put the play back on the top table of Rattigan’s output. “Writers aren’t always the best judges of their work,” Brodie says. “Rattigan thought he had failed, whereas really the production had failed because of circumstances beyond his control.”

Rediscoveries don’t happen by accident. The Finborough’s artistic director, Neil McPherson, reads about thirty old plays a week, looking for neglected gems to programme alongside new writing. He may find them online or in a second-hand bookshop. Or he may read about them, then hunt them down, as when he read a biography of the writer Robert Graves. Graves’s only play for adults, a comedy called
But It Still Goes On, was commissioned by West End producers in 1930, but never staged. “It was so outrageous it would never have got past the Lord Chamberlain’s Office,” McPherson says. It will get its world premiere at the Finborough in July.

Reviving only rare plays gives the Finborough a selling point, but McPherson’s rule is to put on only plays he actively likes, whatever their provenance. He insists that directors take the shows seriously, even if some of the dialogue is quaint. “You can’t send it up, you have to believe in it.” And after 19 years running this 50-seater he hopes he has a good enough track record that “estates trust us a bit”. In June the Finborough will mount the British premiere of Arthur Miller’s final play, from 2004,
Finishing the Picture, which is inspired by his experiences with Marilyn Monroe while she was filming The Misfits.

One day, alas, there will be an Ayckbourn estate. Might it take a more forgiving attitude to his early work than he does? “Well, you can’t control what happens after your death,” the playwright says, cheerfully, “but I will try to leave pleas for them to be left alone: ‘Please do not disturb my bones.’ ” It’s not just play number one he doesn’t want to bother us with again. He also refuses to grant licences for anyone to perform plays number two to five:
Love After All, Dad’s Tale, Standing Room Only and Christmas v Mastermind. Fancy reviving play eight, The Sparrow? Tough, he’s taken against that one too. And even against play 56, Virtual Reality, from 2000, which he could feel was a misfire even during rehearsals. Which still leaves about 75 from which to select.

“Because I have got such a large catalogue now I can afford to be choosy. Those early years were all about learning. I feel about them a bit like an artist with early sketches.”
The Square Cat was written as a kind of dare when he was a young actor in Scarborough. He insisted that he could do better than some of the stuff he was being asked to perform. His director, Stephen Joseph, called his bluff. So he wrote plays with “glossy starring roles” for himself.

“I was a 19-year-old megalomaniac,” he says, “but those plays made me a writer. I was learning that theatre is a practical craft. If plays are not spoken by actors and cursed about by stage managers, they don’t really exist.”

The earliest play he will allow to be staged is
Mr Whatnot, from 1963. A tribute to silent films, it was his last conscious attempt at being “experimental”, to react against the “well-made” plays of Rattigan and Coward. He went to see its 50th anniversary production in Northampton in 2013. “I wouldn’t really want to see it again, though.” After Mr Whatnot’s critical mauling in its first London run he accepted another challenge from Joseph: to learn the rules so he then knew how to break them. His next play, Relatively Speaking, became the first of many hits.

He is for ever grateful for having been able to make his early mistakes in public. He remembers putting on another writer’s debut while he was running the Stephen Joseph Theatre. At the end of the opening night the writer was punching the air and saying: “I’ve done it!” Ayckbourn was thinking: “No, you’ve just hit one successful note.” That playwright was dismayed when his next plays fared less well. Ayckbourn chuckles. “A successful first play is a curse, really. You’ll live to regret it.”

Website Notes:
[1] There's a little misunderstanding here or a bit of journalistic license as in 2017 Alan allowed a brief scene from his second play,
Love After All, to be shown at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. He had previously in 2005 - at a similar event - allowed a scene from The Square Cat to be used.

Copyright: Dominic Maxwell / 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.