Way Upstream: Character Notes by Alan Ayckbourn

Alan Ayckbourn rarely writes detailed notes about his characters, however there are some small notes in his personal correspondence and in interviews relating to Way Upstream.

Alistair
He's a typical English fence-sitter really, he's the complete reversal of the man who's born to lead, he's a man who feels he's born to follow, and I suppose it's an appeal (if one wants to make a grandiose statement about the play) - it's an appeal to the "silent majority": sometimes they have to stand up and be counted, because if you leave a country to be run only by the people who feel they have a God-given right to lead, these are very often the people who shouldn't be allowed near anything, let alone a seat in Parliament. The irony of running a society like ours, a democracy, is that the very people who feel entitled or empowered to run it are the very people who probably you should never vote into office.

Emma
At the end they [Alistair and Emma] form a joint alliance and there is no feeling that she is in any way the junior partner. She handles the rescue of Alistair when he's unconscious, and she runs the boat. I think she makes what I would consider to be the shrewd woman's move: she is sufficiently generous to allow her husband's ego a chance at least to develop again after it's been severely crushed. But at the same time she enters into this on her own terms. Alistair and Emma start the play as very broken, distant, unhappy, uncertain figures; he has somehow lost his way, sexually and socially, and she realises that neither of these losses - at the present time - is in her power to remedy, and she's made deeply unhappy by this. By the end he has reasserted himself, partly through her help, partly through his own winning of a fight he was bound to lose. And I think the way forward is very much: man and woman together. I've never believed that women or men have a divine right to lead; in fact, some of the best alliances happen when both walk together, as it were.

Alistair and Emma
The personal level (i.e between Emma and Alistair) is very important. Alistair's public persona, i.e the one he uses to face the world and other people, is so faded and uncertain that it has affected his private life. He has lost his own self respect and thus, increasingly, the respect of his wife. She, in turn, is lost as a result of this.
Emma's progression through the play is quite interesting. To start with, she sees herself as simply an extension of Alistair. A placid "wife". Later, as things get desperate, she becomes his equal ally and, temporarily, she even assumes captaincy of the ship itself. In the end they remain equal partners. The marriage is saved - though it's also transformed into a new working relationship.
I think the play has a happy ending, in that ultimately Emma and Alistair choose to leave their new found paradise and go back and fight for the middle ground. Against, if you like, the forces of the Unreasonable arraigned on either side.

Fleur
Fleur is, like Vince, somewhat of a cipher besides being very much an extension of him. Acolyte might best describe her. They work, we discover, as a well-drilled team. The way they take over the boat is alarmingly efficient and telepathic. We get the feeling that the two have operated like this many times in the past. Every version of their game differs slightly, but the end is the same. To shame and humiliate and destroy. She seduces Alistair, or attempts to, because that's the way it works. First rule: split them up. Vince does this to Keith and June very successfully. But then theirs, Keith's and June's, is already a 'flawed' relationship. One sharp tap and the thing splits apart. Alistair and Emma's is altogether stronger and deeper. Troubled maybe, but very much alive and with both parties desperately seeking a way out of their deadlock.
Alistair's rejection of her is irritating because such a wimp as this one should have been a push-over. Only the man was wearing a garlic wreath of wifely love which caused the little sexual vampire to hiss, momentarily, then turn her mind to other things. Kingfishers for instance.
The antagonism between her and Vince is nothing serious. She is a little jealous of him having fun with June without being there to join in the fun and degradation of it. But for the rest it's just a small mischievous demon being slapped down by Satan. There is no doubt who's the boss and no doubt that Fleur probably went through some sort of similar ordeal at Vince's hands that's made her what she is today.

Vince And Fleur
The feeling from both Fleur and Vince is that they are working to some extraordinarily detailed plan, stuffed with contingencies. Nothing is left to chance. Just occasionally, I've allowed us the odd backstage glimpse of the two conferring. But they're really only the nods and grunts of a Special Commando force going about its work.
Vince and Fleur are two prongs of the same fork representing, for me, the worst excesses of political ideology. Vince is, certainly, the most evil man I've ever written - although the concept of evil crops up a lot in my plays - especially the later ones.

Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without permission of Alan Ayckbourn.