Every Alan Ayckbourn aficionado has a story to tell about how they discovered the British playwright. I am no exception. For some time I had been producing plays and musicals in a small town in northern Ontario. Then one day I learned that a friend was planning to direct some local actors in a recently published comedy by Ayckbourn called Table Manners. (This is one of the plays in a trilogy called The Norman Conquests.) I was curious and asked to read the play. Soon I was shaking my head in puzzlement. There was nothing funny here. Just a few dissolute Brits sitting around a dining room table discussing trivial domestic matters. I gave the play back and wished my friend well, but wondered how he was ever going to milk a comedy out of such a lifeless script.
Then I went and saw the play. Two minutes in I was chuckling away and by the five minute mark I was laughing uproariously. That night I became a besotted Ayckbourn fan and have never looked back. A few years later I directed a production of Table Manners myself. By now I had learned the mantra from the Ayckbourn crowd. Play the material for the truth and not for laughs. This I proceeded to do, and came away from the show feeling pretty good. Then my wife and I visited England and found our way to Scarborough where it so happened that a production of The Norman Conquests was taking place under Ayckbourn’s own direction. Naturally we leapt at the opportunity to see the three plays as directed by the master himself, and once again I was struck by a revelation. I remember coming out of the Scarborough theatre and thinking to myself, with a mixture of discovery and despair, “Ah, that’s what he means by playing the material for the truth and not for laughs!”
I think I have finally learned the lesson, but it hasn’t been easy. Our whole entertainment culture has been saturated with sitcom humor for so long that it’s hard for actors and directors to play Ayckbourn for the truth and trust that the play will come alive. And yet, as Ayckbourn’s long time archivist Simon Murgatroyd said recently, “There is one simple result if you don’t play the truth: the plays will not work.”
They won’t work for the simple reason that Ayckbourn hasn’t given us funny scenes/lines or tragic scenes/lines. It’s not that he can’t do this. His very first plays in fact, Relatively Speaking, Bedroom Farce, and How The Other Half Loves, are written in a traditional sitcom like way. Funny scenes. Funny characters. Funny lines. But once Ayckbourn really hit his stride with The Norman Conquests in 1974, the humour/tragedy of the play emerges not nearly so much from the lines as from the context and especially from the emotionally realistic way in which the scenes are played. There must be no attempt to ham things up or milk the script for laughs. Just make the characters and the story real and, wow, the plays simply explode with life. Check out the famous Thames Production of The Norman Conquests on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean.
Another great strength in Ayckbourn is the way he so often meshes comedy and tragedy. Take, for example, one of the restaurant scenes in Time of My Life where Glyn has just explained to his wife, Stephanie, that he is leaving her and the kids for Sarah. Glyn, however, insists that he is no rotter. He is giving Steph substantial financial help not to mention the car. He then leaves the restaurant, saying: “Don’t bother about the bill. I’ll… (Suddenly moved) You’ve been amazing, Steph. Absolutely amazing over all this. Thank you. I mean it. I won’t forget it. Thank you.” Stephanie is now completely alone only to have Tuto, the waiter, come bouncing in with dessert suggestions: “You want a sweet? What you like? We have the specialities. Smooliboos. That is cream with meringue?” Stephanie mechanically nods and Tuto offers a running commentary of the delicious options as he serves her: “What else can we tempt you? Some profiteroles? Some lemon mousse? Some fruit salad?” On and on Tuto enthuses while Stephanie quietly sobs away. Audiences often find themselves laughing through their tears or crying through their laughter.
As Alan Ayckbourn turns 75 this month, his work is more popular than ever, not only in Britain but throughout Europe. His plays have also penetrated Japan, China and Australia. The USA, thanks in part to the recent electrifying production of The Norman Conquests on Broadway, has become one of the most frequent producers of Ayckbourn in the past few years. And there has been a lot of interest recently in South America, particularly in Brazil.
All quite impressive. But even more encouraging is the fact that more and more theatre companies seem to be playing Ayckbourn for the truth. “Ironically,” says Murgatroyd. “It’s the young, new directors – perhaps because the message has got across – that have the least problem with playing Ayckbourn for the truth rather than the laughs – and, consequently, getting far more laughs because of it. The most recent successful productions have all been directed by young directors, influenced by Ayckbourn… Ironically, the most disappointing production in recent memory in London’s West End was A Chorus of Disapproval. The seasoned director decided to play up the comedy rather than to explore the truth of the characters. As a result, it failed despite the best efforts of several actors playing it for reality.”
Alan Ayckbourn has now written over 75 plays. Some of the most popular ones are early works like Relatively Speaking, How The Other Half Loves, and Bedroom Farce. These, as mentioned earlier, are more conventional comedies which is no doubt one of the reasons why they are so popular. But Ayckbourn’s genius really comes into its own with plays like The Norman Conquests and other brilliant dark comedies such as Absent Friends, Joking Apart, Woman in Mind, Time of My Life, Confusions, and Invisible Friends.
Then there’s Ayckbourn’s one act children’s play, Ernie’s Incredible Illucinations which is wildly popular in British schools and colleges. And By Jeeves, a musical that Ayckbourn wrote with Andrew Lloyd Webber. This under-rated show combines Ayckbourn’s comic gifts with one of Webber’s most enchanting – and under-rated – scores. Then if you are really up for a challenge, how about House & Garden where two plays take place at the same time with one cast, the actors running back and forth between the two different stages!
Finally, a word about Ayckbourn’s love of theatre in the round. His plays can obviously be staged as well in traditional theatres – witness the productions in London where he is the most frequently produced living playwright in the West End. Still, the smaller and more intimate the theatre the better for Ayckbourn, and the round especially allows his reality-driven plays to shine. Theatres can look very beautiful when the house lights are on. But the moment those lights go down, only one thing really matters, and that’s the actor and the audience. And the round, more than any other medium, brings this out most strongly. As Ayckbourn says, “The actor is in the middle and the audience surrounds him, and there’s nothing else there, really.”
As the most successful living playwright in the world today, the British bard can celebrate his 75th birthday knowing that he has given the world of theatre a gift that many will be appreciating for a long time to come. Still, the challenge remains to play his work for the truth and thus enjoy Alan Ayckbourn’s playful genius at its best.