Way Upstream: Interviews

This section features interviews with Alan Ayckbourn. Click on the links in the right-hand column below to go to the relevant interview.

This interview by Bryan Appleyard was published in The Times on 18 August 1982 to mark the London debut of Way Upstream at the National Theatre.

Still Hoping For Heroes

Alan Ayckbourn is generally known to resemble one of his own characters - middle-class, amiable but at the mercy of forces he cannot control. So perhaps the National Theatre should have expected the odd plumbing problem when he asked them to flood the stage for his new play, Way Upstream.

Sure enough the vast fibre-glass tank sprang a leak, a typical Ayckbournian accident which in one of his plays might be taken to symbolise a deeper British malaise. But, given the National Theatre's resources, the play should open in the Lyttelton scarcely more than a couple of weeks late - on September 3
[1] - in a more or less watertight condition. All being well the cabin cruiser should appear to chug merrily down the Broads and the odd, painstaking hyperrealism of the National should be satisfied. But what is it all for?

According to Mr Ayckbourn the boat was easy: "I set this play in a boat because a vast proportion of Britons are stupid enough to believe they come from a seafaring race who go out on the Broads and ram each other."

A boat is an image of a grotesque national miscalculation, an image of escape and adventure unfortunately curtailed in its resonance by the technical incompetence of those who would partake of its liberating mysteries. For, in a boat, you have to take decisions and Ayckbourn's middle class are incapable of making decisions. They put off the evil hour of definitive choice until it is too late, until some megalomaniac has taken the whole thing out of their pathetic hands.

It is a theme the simplicity of which appears to embarrass Ayckbourn somewhat: "If you boil down your themes they sound terribly banal. Mainly I want to say things about the fear and distrust people have for each other, the fact that men and women still don't seem to understand each other very well. There are too many people in the world who are likely to leave important decisions they should make until far too late.

"Then they let people - people whom I think are grossly irresponsible if more passionately convicted - do it for them. So people get caught up in war or whatever just because they didn't say things they should have said. And in Britain eventually we could get an extreme left or right government simply because the people in the middle are not prepared to stand up - I don't want this to sound like an argument for the SDP."

His words have a habit of pursuing themselves back and forth between-jokes and semi-visionary worries about a collapsing society. The dark side of Ayckbourn for which the critics have been calling has always been there. It is just that his effortless dramatic technique and inescapable comic talent - the theatrical equivalent of his amiably fluent conversation - have prompted them to demand more. Is it not time we had Ayckboum's
Hamlet? But he has persisted in ploughing a narrow furrow, inspired by an actor's sense of what the public wants and a pragmatic desire first to fill the theatre and second to convince his audience.

"The first thing is to get people in. Once you've got them in and once you've kept their minds wedged open - it's the easiest thing in the world to say something punishing and serious so that everybody clams up anyway and the only ones who are clapping are the converted - then the trick is to say important things to them and to keep them listening."

Way Upstream, he happily admits, is his darkest play so far. One actor in Scarborough commented on the terrible sense of evil that seemed to lurk within it. Indeed at the age of 42 Ayckbourn senses the serious side closing in and he feels able, if not obliged, to speak more plainly about the horrors that may lie ahead.

"I feel threatened by the fact that the fabric of society is under tremendous tension at the moment. Occasionally you get the odd Toxteth or bomb in the Park
[3] - we all forget it very quickly, thank God - but it keeps occurring." So Ayckbourn, the fluid farceur, has begun to realise why the laughter in his plays makes people sad.

"I used to think there was no such thing as evil - one used to think it was just bad upbringing or something - but some people are just plain horrible and they take delight and pleasure from it. There are some extremely evil people walking around and there are some extremely good people walking around. I suppose it's not a particularly startling revelation for a man of 42 - some kids of eight could tell you as much - but before I just sort of liberalled along saying these people haven't had enough bread and butter. Really some sort of opposition is necessary."

He appears to be entering a visionary middle age and the long-term effect on his plays is liable to be stronger polarisation. Villains will really be villains - like Vince in
Way Upstream, "a very dangerous smiling villain" - and heroes may well at last begin to be heroes, like Alistair. "He is a man who is forced eventually to make a decision and wins… just."

Alistair, probably Ayckbourn's first hero, thus threatens to become the material for the as-yet-unwritten tragedy, a man who breaks free from the suffocating social and psychological conventions to which Ayckbourn's every creation has been subject. The signs are all there. Encroaching middle age and visionary pessimism are beginning to mark Ayckbourn's work -
Intimate Exchanges, the two-hander currently playing at his theatrical home in Scarborough, includes his first stage death.

He still claims it is laughter that brings in the crowds. He draws a graph with his hand illustrating the box-office takings of his various plays, proving that the darker they are the less money they make.
Absent Friends would appear to be a fairly clear exception.

"What the extreme left and the extreme right have in common is absolutely no sense of humour. Perhaps I can spread a sense of balance through comedy. I don't think it will do very much. It's like throwing a bucket of sand on a forest fire, but it might serve to save a small proportion."

It is all a triumph of technique, a realisation that the joke in his early plays - that human beings were hopelessly incompetent at managing their lives - was in fact more deeply true than he realised when he exploited it as a structural device. Indeed the depth of the gag has revealed a steady strain of pessimism in his insight, better put by Yeats, that "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity".

Ayckbourn giggles or chuckles in the course of almost every sentence he speaks, yet the fact is that he is clearly not entirely convinced by Alistair's liberation. He is dubious about the validity of heroes in any form. If Alistair is his first hero, he might also prove to be his last; after all, when it comes to heroes, he is obviously making it all up.

"Well, I'd like to think they existed."

"Do you know any?"


Website Notes:
[1] The production actually opened on 3 October 1982 at the National Theatre and was beset by problems.
[2] The Social Democratic Party which was launched in the UK in 1981 as a centrist third party.
[3] The Toxteth riots of July 1981 were a civil disturbance in Toxteth, inner-city Liverpool, which arose in part from long-standing tensions between the local police and the black community. They followed the Brixton riots earlier that year.

Copyright: The Times. This edited transcription and the end-notes have been compiled and researched by Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.