The most performed living playwright in the world is in high demand, but his sense of loyalty is equal to his popularity. Adopted one he may be, but a loyal Yorkshireman is he. It’s one of the reasons his plays, including the significant number which end up in the West End, are almost invariably seen first by Yorkshire audiences at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre.
Until now, that is. Earlier this week Ayckbourn’s newest play was premiered not only to his Scarborough faithful, but to the whole world.
In the week that he should have started directing a new play for the stage of the SJT, a theatre forced into darkness by the effects of Covid-19, his latest offering is a radio play released on the theatre’s website to all.
Directed and recorded by Ayckbourn, it features his wife and actor Heather Stoney and someone he’s giving a chance to get ‘on stage’ for the first time in 56 years – himself.
“I wasn’t that rusty in truth, in my head I’ve been acting out my plays for a long time and of course I voice all of them anyway,” he says (ever since suffering a stroke in 2006 Ayckbourn has dictated all of his plays directly on to his computer using voice recognition software).
“But it’s been a little while since Heath last acted. Fortunately she responded very positively when I asked her, although she carried on with all her office work and kept having to run off to deal with something or other; it was like working with Judi Dench.”
The play is about a couple who announce to their friends, at a gathering to celebrate their 25th anniversary, that they are going to get divorced.
“You only really ‘meet’ the couple in question very fleetingly, the play really is about the impact the news has, the reverberations on the people around them,” he says.
How did he broach the, presumably sensitive, subject of asking his own wife to act opposite him in a play in which a long marriage comes to an end? “Oh, she was very sanguine about the whole thing,” says Ayckbourn.
The artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Paul Robinson, asked Ayckbourn if he would write a short piece for the theatre as part of a desperately needed fundraising drive.
Ayckbourn decided to go one better and looked through the shelves to see if there was anything he could use. Anno Domino leapt out.
He was clearly in his element. Making Anno Domino took him back to an early love in his career.
“Well, I had to put my radio producer’s head on for the first time in a long time. I’ve always loved radio, ever since I joined the BBC in the 1960s. All the other producers and directors went off to play with this new toy they had found called television. I attached myself to a brilliant radio producer called Alfred Bradley and did some really interesting plays with him.”
It’s a little known fact that Ayckbourn provides all the soundscapes for his own stage work, with some pretty sophisticated technology in his home office.
Once he’d cast himself and his wife to play the eight roles in the play, it was a question of finding the best parts of the house that would work acoustically and then “putting the old radio producer head on and multi-tracking and using all sorts of gizmos to pull it together”. As someone who works in radio, I can tell you Ayckbourn is selling himself short – that is no easy feat.
While the play has been welcomed by the world, there are some quarters who have been made a little nervous by the news.
“Actors we know are calling and Heather has got them terrified; they all keep saying ‘what if this is how he decides to do his plays from now on!?’. I don’t think they have to worry,” he says.
The truth is, though, the theatre world is starting to worry – a lot. The reason Ayckbourn wrote the play and why Robinson is so grateful for it, is because British theatre is facing an uncertain future. Covid-19 is wreaking havoc on the industry with devastating and potentially long-lasting effects.
“I really have severe worries about theatre. It will be the last thing to recover simply because of the nature of what it is. Our little space in Scarborough is a crucible waiting for the virus to spread. The whole purpose of writing for the stage is to bring two sets of people together – the audience and the actors, how can we do that while we have this terrible thing?
“Sonia Friedman (theatre producer) warned this week that we could lose 70 per cent of our theatres if something isn’t done. The SJT has been very sensible in recent years and put a bit of fat on, but I have to wonder, at 81, if I can hold out much hope of being back there."
Ayckbourn is speaking with unusual passion. He then says something that brings him up short.
“I might have put on my last play for the theatre. No. I can’t even contemplate that.”
It has a galvanising effect on the great playwright-director. “We need to save theatres and I don’t just mean Drury Lane or the National, but the real theatres, the small companies all over the country that are suffering these terrible blows. We are always going to need live performances with actors and audiences.
“People keep saying that theatres survived the great plague, but audiences back then didn’t have Netflix. We must make sure that theatre survives.”
He’s done his bit by providing for the world Anno Domino. One suspects if this goes on much longer, he might be doing his bit again. Although he doesn’t say it explicitly, there is a suggestion there’s plenty left in the tank.
“When I look back on life, it does feel that I have often arrived at the right place at the right time. I arrived at the BBC when everyone was heading to television so I had the chance to play with radio. I arrived in Scarborough where I got the chance to work with Stephen Joseph and made plays here. Perhaps they’ll look back and say ‘well, if it hadn’t been for lockdown and the virus he might never have written his ‘La Boheme’,” says Ayckbourn.
Of course. we all hope for an end to the virus and lockdown, but if it brings us Ayckbourn’s ‘La Boheme’, his masterpiece, well that’s a tantalising prospect worth even maybe another week in lockdown…?
Anno Domino is available via the Stephen Joseph website until June 25. www.sjt.uk.com
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