Sir Alan Ayckbourn has been to the Playhouse before. As we climb the steps of the theatre in search of a secluded spot, he reminisces fondly: ‘I was under twenty, that’s for sure. I came on as an acting assistant stage manager and got a lovely lot of small parts; in Under Milk Wood; Henry IV… It was wonderful. At that point my sights were very much set on acting.’ Did he work with students? He chuckles.
“No students. Students tended to be rather snooty about the Playhouse in those days. When you did mainstream theatre they didn’t like it, and when you did Ionesco or Pirandello, the trendy buzz names at the time, they said, ‘no, we don’t think we like those either.’ It was a sort of battle between town and gown.”
By the time we’ve found a quiet corner I’m feeling completely at ease with this accommodating, astute, and intelligent man. Sir Alan Ayckbourn is one of those special people who commands respect simply by being so intensely likeable, although he has much to be superior about, having begun his remarkable career three years younger than me.
“I left school just after my A Levels, much to the horror of my House Master. I pulled all the contacts I could and left on a Friday. On Monday I was sitting in a rehearsal room with a professional company around me, so green – I had no idea. They all asked what drama school I’d been to! We had a three week gig at the Edinburgh Festival. If you’re an impressionable teenager and your first job is the Fringe, you’ll either go off theatre for life, or you’re bitten, as I was. Just magical.” I ask him if he’d recommend other young thespians to follow the same path, or stick out their degree.
“I can’t really tell these days, but I think if you want to do it, you do it. I’m always surprised when somebody in my company says, ‘I read philosophy’, and I think, ‘Ah well, it doesn’t make much difference to your acting, but at least you understand what you’re speaking about!’ The old saying goes, you don’t have to know anything to be an actor, you just have to be a good faker. All this research that goes on is a dead end really.”
Sir Alan has come a long way since these early days, with seventy-eight plays and numerous awards under his belt. His latest work, Arrivals and Departures, is more serious than the work he is most famous for. Was that intentional?
“Seriousness has been creeping into my work for quite a long time now. This is about as heavy as I get. It’s an old theme – distance between us. Two strangers meet, and although their whole back stories come out to us, by the end of the evening they leave just as ignorant about each other as they were at the start. You meet someone and make a snap judgement, and never know more. I’m always fascinated about what happens when you dig. It turns out of course that these two have so much in common that it’s almost tragic that they never reached out and touched each other.’
The play has thirty parts and eleven actors: “A big scale for me. I usually work smaller. As a person who ran a company once I know the most expensive individual items are the actors. My tip for a dramatist is write small.”
Sir Alan’s work is often referred to as farce, but he is quick to assert, “I wouldn’t call it that. It’s comedy. Dark comedy… darker comedy… I’ve only written one genuine farce, a play called Taking Steps. You take a sensible situation and twist it. I describe traditional farce like this: you start with the actors walking on the floor. In the second act, they start to walk up the walls, and by the end of the evening, they’re walking on the ceiling. If you can pull that trick off and it’s only at the end, when the actors fall down, that the audience think, how the hell did they end up there, then that’s farce. Comedy is more sly. I like modestly to think I invented the blend of darkness and light in single sentences and single speeches.”
This is certainly true, so Sir Alan can get away with it. We’re getting on so well I decide to reveal that last term I was in a performance of Absurd Person Singular, cut to half an hour for Drama Cuppers. He flinches with physical pain and murmurs, “Oh my god!” I have to come clean: being eight people, we also wrote two parts in. He looks faint. “Oh no!” But, I plough on, if the legend is true, and there is an Alan Ayckbourn play being performed every day in England, a huge amount of adaption must be unavoidable.
“I try and avoid it. I’m so close to my stuff now. Thirty years ago I started to blend the director and writer in me together so now no play of mine gets produced without me directing it. It’s quite dangerous to say all writers should do this, though. Some writers are car crashes.” He softens. “I’m fairly easy-going really. I write my plays for actors to interpret.” This is slightly undermined as Alan continues to muse, “Absurd Person. It’s a powerful play that; quite indicative of my writing. I’ve seen productions of it akin to the Nuremberg Rally.”
After apologizing profusely I only have time for one more question, so I go big – in all his myriad achievements, what stands out the most?
“Well… I got the Tony Award and the Olivier Lifetime Achievement Award a couple of years ago, and that was very nice. But, with a Lifetime Achievement Award, it can seem a little like everyone’s screwing the lid on you – trying to imply your career is over, which is certainly not the case. I have another play coming out next year, and plenty of things up my sleeve.”
He smiles. “I’ve got a while in me yet.”