International Festival: Alan Ayckbourn interview

Alan Ayckbourn's two-part six-hour sci-fi drama The Divide shows there is more to the prolific playwright than social satire, writes Joyce McMillan

Jake Davies as Elihu and Weruche Opia as Giella in The Divide

When Annabel Bolton first met Alan Ayckbourn, almost 20 years ago, she was a very young deputy stage manager arriving at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough for her first season’s work after a stage management apprenticeship, and he was already Sir Alan Ayckbourn, a giant of British theatre, one of its best-loved, most performed and most prolific contemporary playwrights.

Ayckbourn had been director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre since 1972, when he took over the artistic directorship a few years after the death of the theatre’s legendary founder, who was one of the pioneers of theatre-in-the-round in Britain; and although almost all his plays were premiered there, his magnificent, tragicomic social satires of the 1970s and 80s – including Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests, A Chorus Of Disapproval, Woman In Mind, and a score of others – had also made him an acclaimed star of the national and international theatre scene. Yet if Bolton was in awe of the man, she soon found that there was no need to be afraid of him.

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“What was he like?” she says, remembering how she managed to persuade Alan and his wife Heather that she could manage the vital DSM job, despite her youth. “Well, to be honest, I just think Alan is fabulous. He’s a theatre man who loves actors, loves the rehearsal room, and is just formidable in the amount of work he does – even now, with a show about to open in Edinburgh, he is in technical rehearsals for another show, and finishing the script of a third. He’s a write-aholic, I would say. He’s a lot of fun; and he’s hugely respectful of everyone involved in theatre, of stage managers and technical teams and actors and everyone. He is a great man.”

Playwright and director Alan Ayckbourn. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

And now, almost two decades on, Bolton finds herself – as associate director at the Old Vic in London – directing the Edinburgh International Festival world premiere of Ayckbourn’s latest work, a mighty two-part epic called The Divide, set in a dystopian post-plague England where the ravages of a disease transmitted through heterosexual contact have led to the complete separation of the sexes, enforced by a strictly authoritarian regime. The women, who carry the infection, wear black, while the men wear white, to signal their purity; the story follows the fortunes of a young brother and sister growing up in this divided world. And although Ayckbourn has ventured into science fiction and fantasy before, with plays like Henceforward (1987) and Comic Potential (1998), both featuring a world in which some human beings are replaced by robots, both he and Bolton feel that The Divide is unlike anything he has ever attempted before, at least in form.

“It really bears no resemblance to anything I have ever written before,” says Ayckbourn, now 78 and as active as ever, despite a major stroke back in 2006. “For one thing, I wrote it not as a play but as a draft scenario, or perhaps a graphic novel. It was shapeless, in five parts, nearly ten hours long, with a minimum cast of 30 and a reckless disregard for scenic or costume budgets. It was something which when the writer (me) had finished it, he turned to the director (me) and said, ‘There! Direct that if you dare!’ In other words, I stopped short in my writing process, disregarding my usual practice of solving practically all the staging problems. So until I see it in Edinburgh, you almost have as good an idea about what you’ll be seeing as I do.

“So far as the science-fiction element is concerned though – well, along with many of the writers in that genre whom I admire – Arthur C Clarke, Issac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Philip K Dick, Brian Aldiss – I regard sci-fi and fantasy as a way of posing questions about current trends and developments, either socially or politically. A sort of ‘what if we continue to do this… then expect this’ scenario. In that respect The Divide is not a lot different in tone from my earlier stuff, including some of my kids’ work – somewhat pessimistic overall, but also laced with quite a bit of humour. It’s really the sheer scale and structure that makes this one different.”

And it’s this massive piece of work that Bolton is now shaping into the six-hour epic that will appear at the King’s Theatre this August. “Alan directed a rehearsed reading of the text in Scarborough last year,” she explains, “and I went up to see it as part of general Old Vic effort to try to keep in touch with whatever’s going on in theatre. I remember three things really distinctly. The first was that the whole thing lasted almost ten hours, because Alan kept insisting that we all take breaks every couple of hours or so; and I was so caught up in the story that I didn’t want them to stop, I just wanted to know what happened next.

Playwright and director Alan Ayckbourn. Picture: Tony Bartholomew

“The second thing was that I kept hearing music, as I listened to it, as if I was watching a film – there’s something about this thing that is very connected to music. And the third was that I thought, ‘how the hell are they going to stage that?’ And now here I am directing it, and I must say it is the most interesting, exciting, challenging experience.”

For The Divide, Bolton has assembled a formidable performing company of 13 actors, eight musicians and a community choir, drawn from the city where the show is appearing; there’s also a top-flight creative team, including designer Laura Hopkins and composer Christopher Nightingale. And her main hope is that audiences will not be intimidated by the two-part show’s six hour length, but will plunge into it as they would into a good television series.

“In a sense,” she says, “I think it has a very similar feel to a good box-set. There’s no way that people are not going to get attached to the characters in this story, and no way that they’re not going to want to know what happens next. It’s about young people growing up under a regime, young people being part of a revolution. It’s about bureaucracy, rules, politics. It’s about a world that’s different from ours, and yet still in many ways recognisable.

“There is plenty of humour in it; quite dark humour, as in many of Alan’s plays, different, but present. And what a wonderful way of exploring gender and youth, through the idea of a society where the sexes are so strictly divided. So I hope people who are more used to Alan’s big social comedies will begin to think of him in a very different way, after The Divide.

“But I also know that they will hear his voice, that characteristic strong, humorous voice, with such a powerful hold on what it is to be human. They’ll feel that they’ve been on a full journey with these characters, through so many different scenarios; and in the end, they’ll get that feeling of fully knowing a society, or a family.”

And will they feel that the story is finished, or will they want a sequel?

“Oh a sequel, definitely; yes, there’s a sequel out there, just waiting to be written.”

The Divide, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 11-20 August, with previews 8-9 August, 
0131-473 2000 /