In a large, warm study overlooking the snow-bound Scarborough coastline, I find Sir Alan Ayckbourn, seated behind a long and rather messy desk. A prolific playwright, he is the man behind plays like Relatively Speaking, Woman in Mind and The Norman Conquests, which received fourteen awards and nominations at the Old Vic last summer, before transferring to New York. It is claimed that he is the most performed living playwright of our time, and the second most performed after Shakespeare. He is also a well-respected director, although now directs only his own work, which is distinguished by its bitter-sweet comedy and its focus on often dysfunctional, middle-class families.
Brought up by his mother, a writer, in Hampstead, Ayckbourn’s interest in theatre began at school, where he was initially most attracted to acting, which, as he said, is really the most interesting part when you’re a kid. Getting in ‘through the back-door’, without any dramatic training, Ayckbourn became stage manager under the director Stephen Joseph, at the Library Theatre in Scarborough. He worked his way up to acting, observing all the other aspects of theatre-life on his way.
At around the same time, he began writing properly, although he says that he had been busy writing plays since school, ‘partly because I was too lazy to write the descriptive stuff; novels are too much hard work – a play is far more immediate’. Indeed, it is this immediacy that really draws Ayckbourn to theatre. As he says, even in music, there is an instrument, a middle-man, between the audience and the player, whereas a play simply asks ‘one group of people to interact with another group of people pretending to be other people’. There is nothing else between them.
Ayckbourn developed the two different skills of direction and writing separately, without making any kind of conscious decision about them. Indeed, it is unclear whether he has made many conscious decisions about his career, as he claims, ‘everything about my life has happened by accident – it is a fortuitous series of serendipitous events.’ At first, therefore, he steered clear of directing his own plays, which was rather frowned upon at the time anyway, despite the successes of writer-directors like Noel Coward. This was probably a good thing, as when he did come to directing his own plays, he was ‘fully-fledged’ and able to look at them as objectively as possible. This marked a turning-point in Ayckbourn’s life; ‘I realised I was made to work with my own stuff; it made me happy, and turned out to be quite a successful combination.’
Talking about the creative process, Ayckbourn sticks by his mentor Stephen Joseph’s advice to ‘know the rules and then break them’. Just as a painter like Picasso must be able to draw the human form before dissolving it into triangles, Ayckbourn has spent most of his career learning the rules of play-writing and then bending them. Even his method of writing plays is very particular. Generally, once he has come across a theme he would like to pursue, characters begin to stroll into his head, unravelling the story, without much conscious thought or decision from him. When asked about the potential origins of these characters, Ayckbourn answers, ‘there are a lot of aspects of the sel
f…I think a lot of writers would own up and say that many of the things they write are parts of them, although I can’t trace most of them back’.
Indeed, the sheer number of characters that he has created would make this impossible. However, it seems inevitable that many of them are related, and Ayckbourn often sees the traits of old characters reappearing in new ones. As he says, ‘you plagiarise from yourself all the time. Musicians are particular culprits; just take an old tune, bang it in waltz time and there you go!’ He admits that overheard conversations in trains and restaurants can provide a rich field for inspiration, but the only real requirement for Ayckbourn’s characters is that they can be easily engaged with, and recognised by members of the audience. ‘A lot of writing, and plays, is about reassurance’: there is something comforting in seeing a character feel the way you do, or react in a way that you know.
As for endings, Ayckbourn warns against leaving too much unresolved, which can give the audience a kind of ‘intellectual indigestion’, but conversely, tidy, sealed plays are ‘terribly bland’. A few threads left hanging will at least give people something to talk about on the way home. ‘That’s what plays are about; sending people off on their own thought processes.’
But Ayckbourn’s plays don’t just make you think, they entertain too, with their particular brand of light and dark humour. Indeed, comedy is found in the most serious situations; ‘weddings, christenings, even funerals…yes they’re a lot of fun. There’s something very funny about someone trying to do something really sincerely well-meant, and getting it wrong.’ During the funeral that ends his new play, Life of Riley, the vicar actually forgets the name of the dead man. Understandably, Ayckbourn says, as the vicar probably hadn’t seen him since his christening.
This element of entertainment is something that Ayckbourn sees lacking in theatre today. No one seems to be writing comedy, at least not in his style. If it’s not a pantomime or indeed a musical, the main priority for contemporary theatre seems to be broadcasting serious issues and unsettling the audience. ‘These days, it seems you want to leave the theatre either infinitely depressed or infinitely entertained, but without a lot of content.’ Ayckbourn manages to keep the audience onside by giving them a mixed dose of fun and seriousness. As he said, ‘our generation (Ayckbourn, Bennett et al.) opened up the ability to write about quite dark topics, but spiced them with humour. If you want light in a play, you’ve got to have shadow.’ As he has developed as a writer, he has tried to run the light and dark elements closer together, to lift or bring down moments in a play subtly. There is the danger, however, of this comic potential going over everyone’s heads: ‘when it comes to laughing, audiences need a big nudge in the ribs. And American audiences need a particularly big one.’
Talking about the health of theatre today, Ayckbourn identifies the current trend of adapting plays from films, as opposed the past, when the best thing that could happen to a playwright would be an adaption of their script by a Hollywood director. This produces rather mixed results; Ayckbourn recalls a revival of The Shawshank Redemption, which didn’t survive the inevitable shrinking entailed in the move from screen to stage. Part of this trend is the new craze for thrusting movie stars into plays, attracting an audience new to the theatre, who often seem to leave ‘slightly disappointed’, however excited their erstwhile favourite actor was about finally having the chance to play Hamlet. Ayckbourn opines, ‘maybe if you’re David Tennant you can get away with it. But Jude Law, I think, didn’t. You’ve got to earn your stripes in the battle-field before you can do your first big West End role’. Earning your stripes means being able to perform eight plays a week, sometimes three a day, and injecting emotion and enthusiasm into each one. Film stars ‘go off after two days with broken voices and bits dropping off them’.
‘I’m not sure about the future of the theatre.’ Ayckbourn was very lucky as a young writer to be given a regular, yearly spot for his plays. Writers today, however, usually don’t have that promise of steady commissions, which not only stifles their development but can dry up the creative process altogether. It’s rather demoralising to write something in complete uncertainty as to whether anyone will ever see it, with the result that many drift off into television or film. Ayckbourn is a rarity in that he has never written anything for television and hasn’t really wanted to either.
When asked to name the next Alan Ayckbourn, he is hard pressed to say, although Mark Ravenhill is cited as a possibility, despite the links between them being rather tenuous. Ultimately, Ayckbourn is not sure he’d like an obvious successor: ‘hopefully there are a lot of writers who can appreciate the craft of the plays, without necessarily wanting to write what I write.’ I’d have to say, I certainly hope so too.