A Brief History Of Women: Interviews with Alan Ayckbourn

This page contains an interview between Alan Ayckbourn and Simon Murgatroyd from 2 March 2017 and an interview between Charles Hutchinson and Alan Ayckbourn published in The Press on 8 September 2017.

Simon Murgatroyd interview with Alan Ayckbourn

Simon Murgatroyd: This summer sees the world premiere of your play A Brief History of Women, but I understand that wasn’t your original plan.
Alan Ayckbourn:
No, I wrote this year’s play in October last year and then went to Bowness-on-Windermere to dwell on it. There I decided I was less than 100% happy with it and - as a result - I came back to Scarborough and wrote an entirely different play! I then also rewrote the original one to make myself happier with it, so I suddenly had two plays and I offered them both to our Artistic Director Paul Robinson and said, ‘take your pick.’ He chose the second, as it happens, A Brief History Of Women.

What is A Brief History Of Woman about?
It’s actually a bit autobiographical. It’s about a very unassuming man, Anthony Spates, who’s a fairly ineffectual chap and who would probably be forgotten by history, but for his relationship with some very colourful women in his life.

In what sense is it auto-biographical?
I think it’s sort of autobiographical in that I left public school at 17 and was hurled into the theatre. There I met so many highly colourful members of the opposite sex and I was convinced - until I was in my thirties - that almost all women were totally mad! They completely intrigued me, which is why I write quite a lot of them, but - like the play’s hero - I only met anything even remotely resembling a sane woman until quite late in life! Although not quite as late as in the play, where the poor man is in his 50s before he meets a sane woman. He’s had some quite interesting experiences along the way though!

This suggests it covers quite a long period of time.
It’s an unusual one for me in that it’s got quite a long time period, which I’ve sometimes - but not often - used in my plays. This is as long a one as any I’ve written as it’s 60 years; I think my previous longest was Joking Apart at 12 years. It runs from 1925 to 1985.

That’s an interesting span of time to cover.
If you stand back from the picture, you’re looking at a story that starts in the mid ‘20s with a certain series of events and then finishes in the mid ‘80s in a world which has gone through two world wars, which throw quite a long shadow over the play either because the characters themselves came through it or were affected by it. But it’s also shows, I think in microcosm, the shifting attitudes to women over the decades.

How does that affect the story you’re telling of this ordinary man and his extraordinary women?
I was interested to chart a chunk of history, although I’m now writing a history play. I’m interested in what effect it has on my characters living in that period. Yet the story of our hero is the one thing that keeps going through it, the people he meets and the differing sexual attitudes.

And all this is also seen through the prism of what you describe as another character, the house.
In 1925, it’s a grand old country house where Spates works as a footman. Then in 1945, it becomes a slightly dodgy prep school for girls. Our hero has recently returned as a fully fledged school master. We then move on to 1965, when the school has long since closed and the building is now an arts centre, one of these arts centres that were dotted around the country where former country houses have been given over to pottery and still-life classes and weekend drama functions. In my time I’ve toured to those places and there’s always one harassed director of the arts centre who always seems to be struggling with many well-meaning, but slightly disorganised amateur groups. In this case, our poor hero is in charge of the arts centre and trying to deal with the local amateur pantomime. And then finally the house becomes, in the mid-‘80s, one of those country house hotels complete with muzak and ‘ye olde bar’.
The house is, in a sense, one of the central characters of the play, because it does have its own personality and it’s undergone all sorts of increasingly humiliating changes. Poor old thing.

Covering six decades sounds like a challenge for the actors, what will they have to cope with?
It offers quite a lot of opportunities for actors to strut their stuff. There’s 26 roles so all of them - except our hero who just ages gently - play different periods of life. Russell Dixon is returning and I said to him, ‘I’m offering you three appalling men and one hall porter! The porter is probably a decent bloke, but the others are all monsters really.’ There’s something nice about playing a series of monsters in one play!

It’s going into repertory with Taking Steps, which is obviously a farce. What can we expect from A Brief History of Women?
I don’t know how you would label it, there are farcical, funny moments to it but by the same token, there are some quite sad elements to and some serious ones. It’s a gentle, autumnal piece which I hope audiences will enjoy as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.

Ayckbourn marks 60th anniversary at Stephen Joseph Theatre with premiere of 81st play

by Charles Hutchinson

Written last year, such is his prolific rate of writing in his seventies that sees him have another play completed already, it is a comedy in four parts about "an unremarkable man and the remarkable women who loved him, left him, or lost him over 60 years, and of the equally remarkable old manor house that saw and heard it all happen".
From his first unsettling encounter as a very young man in 1925 to an unexpected reunion late in life, Anthony Spates’ romantic progress is charted in a gently touching comedy set in "a house full of ghosts".
Unremarkable man, remarkable women, are men in the Ayckbourn doghouse once more?! "He's a reactive part," says Ayckbourn. "The women are quite dominant in the play, which is travelling such a long way. So I've put a very long lens on it, shooting it at quite a distance, as opposed to being an extreme close-up like in
Absent Friends.
"It's quite a 'long shot', but it's not a long play, it's about two hours, but you get the feeling of a long play, because it proceeds from the 1920s to the 1980s, and there's an enormous difference between the two.
"We're exploring the huge difference between men and women's positions in the 1920s and 1980s, beginning when some men were appalled by the Suffragette movement; then moving on to the 1940s, when we'd just had the Second World War and the country was still recovering; we were a country devoid of young men and full of damaged women. I was seven in 1946 and that was the first year I have a conscious memory of."
The play progresses to the 1960s and onwards to the 1980s, but the 60-year time span matching Ayckbourn's own 60th anniversary of first joining the Stephen Joseph Theatre repertory company as an actor is a mere coincidence, he says.
Instead, he is utilising one of the abiding guiding forces of his plays over the years: the passage of time. "There are 21 characters in the play, and a lot of the time the actors will be having great fun changing costumes, roles and accents and becoming different people, and I hope the audiences will love that as they loved it in the old days of repertory theatre and that's one of my great theatrical joys."
As important as the human characters is the house, which undergoes changes of character too through its change of use down the years. "I've become interested in the bricks and mortar of what we surround ourselves with, and what we do with them," he says, recalling how the Stephen Joseph Theatre had transformed existing buildings into theatres, most recently the Odeon cinema into the present SJT.
"For the play, I thought, what's going to happen to the house? It starts as a country house in the Twenties, becomes a public school in the Forties, an arts centre in the Sixties and an hotel in the Eighties, and in Kevin Jenkins' design, the house stays essentially the same but he does do some clever things with the scenery, with bits being added and subtracted, but mainly it's the people who change, of course. I won't give too much away, but there's fun to be had moving from room to room.
"The nice thing about The Round stage is that it asks questions you of as a writer and director, but if you present the story coherently, it provides the answers for you."
At 78, Ayckbourn is enjoying playing with time and physicality as much as ever, relishing the adrenaline rush of setting himself new challenges. "I'm a great believer in the power of adrenaline," he says. "When I was acting, the reason I gave up was no longer scared by what I was doing. My over-riding ambition was always to do something different, which was such a pain to the other actors, so going on stage slightly bored was not a good idea, and going on stage without an edge to it didn't feel right. It's the same with writing plays, to have that adrenaline of doing something new. I'm always suspicious of anything becoming routine."
So, how has Alan Ayckbourn "scared" himself this time? "I think it's the time span and the time line, and the number of characters, which is huge: even more than in
Confusions," he says.

First article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd; second article copyright of Charles Hutchinson. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.