Sir Alan Ayckbourn talks to The OxStu about his work, his passion for theatre, and what it means when people start frying eggs.
Sir Alan Ayckbourn has just notched up his 75th professional production, ‘Neighbourhood Watch’. The prolific dramatist has penned more plays than Shakespeare.
Ayckbourn’s latest play, ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ is ‘about people taking the law into their own hands and how dangerous that can be.’ The play puts ‘innocuous and fairly average people into a situation where they are trapped in a corner. The protagonists are caught between established law and order and ‘them out there’.’
Ayckbourn says he does not consciously promote a moral in his work. ‘I would describe my plays as cautionary tales. Some are fairly moral, but I’m keen to avoid standing on a big box and preaching.’ The majority of his characters with a sense of morals are ‘spared the worst things’.
I ask Ayckbourn whether, when he first began writing, he saw his playwriting career spanning fifty years. ‘No, not all. I started writing in order to launch my career as an actor.’ It was at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough that Ayckbourn had his first taste of writing for the theatre. The theatre’s eponymous founder ‘had a policy of new writing from within the company’.
Ayckbourn emphasises the practical aspect of playwriting which initially drew him to write for the theatre. ‘Writing allowed me to earn money to support my young family. Writing is also much easier than acting, where you have to turn up every night!’ Ayckbourn then continued writing alongside directing, and acting began to ‘slip away’. By the early 1970s, he was mainly directing.
Ayckbourn has never been tempted to write for film or television. ‘I was born into the theatre. I’ve been a lighting designer, a director, an assistant stage manager, the theatre’s in my blood. I had a new idea for a play the other day. I mentioned it to my wife, who said that would make a good film. It would make a better play, I said.’
Even though he has never drifted into scriptwriting, the film industry has exercised an influence on Ayckbourn. ‘I spent my life in the cinema when I was young, films were my passion. Laurel and Hardy and the silent era of cinema is a tremendous influence.’
Regarding fellow playwrights who have influenced his work, Ayckbourn cites Pinter and Osborne as well as dramatists ‘of the previous generation’ such as Noël Coward. ‘It was an interesting time at the end of the fifties when I was born as a playwright. There was a lot of new writing, John Osborne for example, with this naturalistic, kitchen-sink drama. My single biggest influence was Harold Pinter. His use of language was revolutionary, he broke most of the conventions of the time.’
These influences helped Ayckbourn gradually find his own voice as a playwright. ‘I began writing at first in the style of Coward, of Osborne, of Pinter, until my own voice began to come out of it, and I thought ‘Ah, that must be me.’’
Ayckbourn emphasises the length of time involved in devising a play compared to the amount of time spent writing: ‘My plays usually take about nine months to a year to think of, but they’re very quick to write. I write a play in about 3-4 weeks.
Regarding the inspiration for his characters, Ayckbourn says: ‘My characters are very much a part of me, they are written out of me. Bits of my characters come from people I know but most are just me, in different guises. All the voices are mine. It’s why I write so fast, it’s not good for your personality to be splintered, to be going to bed as six people.’
As to whether he worries about his work receiving negative reviews, Ayckbourn replies: ‘It would be silly of me to say that a bad review makes no difference. When a new play of mine has just been performed, I adopt a defensive mode, try to leave it for a week or two before I read any of the reviews, though of course I sneak a quick look before then. I can usually tell by the attitudes of the people around me how well a play has been received. If they’re tiptoeing around the house like somebody died, it didn’t go too well. If there’s an atmosphere of merriment and everyone’s frying eggs or something I can tell it went all right. You’ve got to keep moving in this business, so if you get a bad review you can say to yourself: ‘It’s an old one, I’m better than that now’.’
‘Looking back on my plays, I don’t have a favourite. I suppose the clichéd response to that is the ‘next one’, because of the naïve expectation of improving play by play. The ones I like the most are the ones that are done the least, my little orphans. I look at them and think the poor little bugger, I wonder why has no one has done him for a bit, what’s wrong with it?’
PHOTO/Copyright: Tony Bartholomew