Absurd Person Singular: Interview with Alan Ayckbourn

The following interview with Alan Ayckbourn and his archivist Simon Murgatroyd took place in February 2012. An addendum from a further interview in December 2012 is also included.

Simon Murgatroyd: Do you think Absurd Person Singular is still pertinent today?
Alan Ayckbourn:
Like a lot of my writing, it is of its time, but it also has a timeless quality to it. Although the characters are very definitely rooted in the period and mustn’t ever be moved from there, I think - nonetheless - that human nature hasn’t changed that much over time. It is a story about the worm turning and the underdog becoming the overdog and the two previous overdogs ending up dancing - literally by the end - to his tune. It’s a fable that still exists today with people climbing and falling through the social ladder.

Absurd Person Singular is cited as a significant point in your writing career, do you agree with that?
Absurd Person Singular has some of my more vigorous writing. I remember that when we were first in rehearsal, I realised we were running into a very dark tunnel in the third act; many people subsequently pointed out that the third act isn’t as funny as the second and I’ve always said, ‘no, it isn’t.’ - although this was almost accidentally intentional. I realised as soon as I’d written it and seen it on stage, that those final ten minutes are very bone-chilling and I’d felt I’d taken another step forward as a writer. There are plays where you feel you’ve stepped forward and there are plays where you have just stepped sideways - hopefully not backwards! I think the juxtaposition of dark and light in Absurd Person Singular is probably the most interesting I had done to that date.

Given the play moved into new territory for you as a writer, what was it like to direct originally?
I think one of the reasons it’s such an interesting play for me - and one worth coming back to again - is because when I originally did it, I was not quite sure it would work. So I think - in my mind - that in the original production I tended to compromise slightly on it because I thought, ‘gosh, this is going to be impossible for the audience to watch.’ But one has to just grab it and do it as it is, just as Jeremy Herrin’s production of Absent Friends in London in 2012 didn’t compromise at all.

Famously, Absurd Person Singular is your first ‘off-stage play’, but it didn’t begin that way, did it?
The original intention was to set it in the sitting rooms and to make it much more conventional. The decision to move it to the kitchen, I once described it as my sewing machine moment: the man who invented the sewing machine worked on it for ages and, of course, decided to put the hole at the bottom of the needle rather than the top, which was a brilliant idea and from then on worked perfectly. That lateral thinking is what makes the idea work. In the case of the kitchens, it’s not just about the physical location but also how all sorts of other things occur because you have put the audience ‘off-stage’. There are moments in the first act when the script asks for the kitchen to be totally empty and all the action is happening in the wings. But then emergencies break out and people rush out of the party itself, which is all happening beyond our gaze, and as we go on we become slightly grateful the author has put us here in the kitchen as it’s not much of a party to actually be at!

It’s difficult to imagine the play having the same impact - or darkness - had it been set in the living rooms.
There are some plays which just don’t put you in the right place at the right time and you miss everything! One of the greats arts of playwriting is putting your audience in the right place at the right time for the narrative. In a good play, all the salient points of the narrative are covered by your presence. In a bad play, you’re always just missing these points or they’re never quite happening and the audience feels it’s missing the action. So the transfer to the kitchen - away from the actual party - allows us to be in the privileged position of being offstage where all the action is.

Did the change of location help in other ways too?
The kitchen also offers a good chance to make social comment on the nature of your characters. If, as Delia said several plays later in Bedroom Farce, you can tell a lot about people by their bedrooms, you can also tell an awful lot from their kitchens. So there are three very different kitchens with very different uses starting with the Hopcroft’s shiny new ship's bridge of a kitchen, then the architect’s shabby living room of a kitchen and then the bleak shell of the final kitchen, the Victorian kitchen which has fallen into disrepute, reflecting the married lives of its owners.

Over the years it has been suggested the play - in particular the Hopcroft couple - predicted some of the uglier aspects of Thatcherism. Are the Hopcrofts still relevant?
It’s one of my socio-economic plays and I think what interested me about the Hopcrofts at the time is still relevant today. The Hopcrofts are the underdogs and are treated rather shabbily by the other couples. In the first act, they’re rather dismissed which is fatal if you’re one of the other couples!
I always felt the other four characters had flaws, if you could call them flaws, in that they were human and had a humanity about them. The Hopcrofts are much more amoral, they have no moral scruples whatsoever and their main aim is just to make it in the world. Quite often you read interviews with very successful people about how they started and they say they never took their eye of the ball, never for a minute. They did quite a lot of - you suspect - quite ruthless things on the way up including cutting people out or rather ruthlessly dismissing people because they weren’t serving their purpose. Nonetheless, what they say is, ‘if you want it, go get it’. So the question is, why can’t the rest of us go get it? Well, maybe, it’s because in the end it’s not worth the gamble and most of us still have a moral sense.

December 2012 Addendum
In our previous interview, you mentioned that you felt you hadn’t done the play justice in its original production and needed to be braver in your direction. What are your feelings about your experiences with the 2012 revival?

We just took the play as it was. It was a very enjoyable period and a production I was very proud of. Because the cast took it as it was, there was no angle of trying to be funny; they just played it as intended and it was much funnier as a result and much darker. In fact, it’s interesting that Ben Porter as Sidney Hopcroft was much sharper than I’ve ever seen Sidney played and I encouraged him to do that. Somebody said to me, "My God, that man’s still eating crisps when he’s wife’s soaking outside the door and banging to get in and he’s just saying, 'wait a minute, and carries on eating!'" I don’t think we’ve ever allowed that scene to dangle as much as that because you’re saying, ‘what are you doing! Let the poor woman in.’ And then she comes in and you realise this is no joke in this relationship. He’s an absolute monster and we’ve let him into our lives.

Absurd Person Singular is well known for its dying fall in the third act, but the darkness seemed to permeate this production far more.
I think the thing about playing it like that is, because it has a much darker last scene, if you don’t direct anything towards that scene - in musical terms, you don’t put any of the darker chords in - then the key changes are very abrupt and you go, ‘oh, what happened there? It’s suddenly gone serious and dark on us.’ But because hints of that darkness were there anyway - rumbling away - it allowed you that key change. It’s very much a directorial decision to encourage that and point it out to the actors and let them play it. You also shouldn’t be afraid of going serious during the lighter shallows of the play because you’re going to thank yourself later when you turn around and say, ‘Act 3 is where you take us seriously folks.’ At which point, you should get the answer back, ‘But we’ve taken you seriously all along.’ If you emphasise the jokes and then decide to plunge into the darker waters, it’s a much bigger problem, but I think we got it right.

How do you think you’ve changed as a director since you first directed the play in 1972?
I’ve learnt as a director to look at the play from a global perspective, to be aware of what’s happening throughout the entire play and to encourage actors to look at the play that way. That’s why I rehearse so quickly, so actors don’t get stuck in one area of their characters; so you don’t spend two weeks on the first 20 pages as then you’re really only ever going to explore those first 20 pages and only be dimly aware that they cut their wrists or something near the end. By concentrating on just one aspect, they’re left to wonder how they get to the character at the end. But if you start an actor with A and take them straight through to B on a really rapid journey, then you can all see where your journey’s going and you can plot the journey towards that moment.
Also don’t give a promise of something that’s not there, as you’ll only disappoint. Just show what sort of a play it is.

You also had a very good company for 2012.
It was a very strong company. I think you turned everywhere and you had strengths. Sarah Parks, who I hadn’t worked with before, was a powerful Marion. Bill Champion - as Ronald - is an interesting actor who I’ve worked with so much now and he’s always working on the roles in his head. The other revelation was Richard Stacey playing Geoff. Richard hasn’t got a dishonest bone in his body and if you play that second act of Absurd Person Singular with Geoff and Eva with such honestly, it just takes your breath away and you understand this is just a man who is so deluded. You see a problem with many companies where they realise Geoff is not the funny part, so maybe they haven’t got as many laughs as Sidney and Jane have. He and Eva are, to that extent, the real couple, and Richard accepted that as did Ayesha Antoine as Eva. All the laughter in the second act comes from her being absolutely hell bent on killing herself. An intelligent actor is not tempted to put on a funny nose halfway through it because then you blow the whole thing. It’s an intelligent actor playing Geoff who realises the audience want to get up and strangle you and he sort of knows in the end there will be a slightly unsatisfying comeuppance for him.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of copyright holder.