Way Upstream: Quotes by Alan Ayckbourn"I'm absolutely terrified [starting writing a new play]. I think the first play one ever writes... it's Just a relief to have finished the damn thing, and by the time you get to the fifth you're beginning to set a few standards for yourself. This is the 27th…. It is for me quite a departure. Whatever else I'm being accused of, I don't think I'm trotting out the same old play again."
(Various Stages, BBC Radio 3, 31 October 1981)
"It goes into realms I haven't explored before and is quite chilling in some ways. There's a cabin cruiser on stage, as well as a lot of water and rain. We thought of trying to flood one of the West End stages, but [London producer] Michael Codron went a little pale when he heard what we were planning. I think the National [Theatre] might be able to cope, though."
(The Observer, 10 January 1982 - tempting fate...)
"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."
(The Times, 18 August 1982)
"What makes its a comedy rather than a tragedy is that Alistair and Emma rally rather sheepishly and British-ly. They actually win if only to fight another battle. In that sense it's a fable. It's a fable about evil. The two outside characters are as evil as anyone has ever written: what makes it more fabulous is there is no attempt to justify their reaction. They are simply filled with a sense of what I think the world is full of at the moment, a nebulous hate."
(Various Stages, 1982)
"One had this need to write about good and evil, much more clearly than normal. It certainly was a very different play but I didn't want everybody then to think I was going to write all these morality plays from now on. I think the next play I write is heading towards being quite farcical again. I think I want to have some fun. The great thing about Way Upstream at the National is the way it's being taken by audiences. It's like a children's matinee. By the time of the rainstorm and the fight when Emma and Alistair finally get away from Vince, they're whooping and shouting and clapping and behaving in a most un-National-Theatre-like manner. Audiences are taking it as I hoped they'd take it; it's riddled with all sorts of images but I hope above all they take it as a cracking good story. I think maybe some of the critics were leaning back. They weren't going to get involved. Maybe if you see too many plays you lose your innocence.
"It ends hopefully but I do think it needed to. It's so negative otherwise. I'm grossly depressed by the world and all that happens in it most of the time, and most of my plays about the human condition never resolve themselves at all. What cheered me was that my two small protagonists in it, having found their inner strength, also find the strength to go back. People started saying it was about the SDP, which I found very depressing. I hope one's into a bigger league than that. It's about people who don't say what they feel, and they should do, whether they're having a motorway driven through their garden or being persecuted by some monolithic state, or just being bullied by the man next door. I chose strange names because I wanted to slowly withdraw all the familiar comforts of civilisation. There is something very strange about going on boats anyway, because it doesn't have many laws. I also wanted to write about the nature of leadership, how some people automatically and erroneously assume leadership."
(Marxism Today, March 1983)
"I filch a lot from films. Way Upstream owes a lot to John Boorman's Deliverance. It's one of my darker ones - two couples going up river in a cabin cruiser and really nasty things happening. It's about the nature of leadership really. And it has quite an optimistic ending for once."
(The Irish Times, 22 January 1985)
"It was exciting with the Way Upstream experience when various elements pulled together. We asked a local boatyard to provide a 'sawn off' boat, for instance, and local interest certainly caught fire with this show. It was not an easy project, and it was trial and error. It was a new technology to move bottomless boats with motors through water - albeit only ten inches of it. With a varying number of people on board it required a great deal of work with gears and motors. If the motor was too strong the boat shot water everywhere, and if it was too feeble it started to catch fire. Our poor engineer was rushing backwards and forwards trying different strengths of motor and various gearing When it worked, which thank heavens it did on the first night, there was a sort of sigh of relief from the entire audience followed by a huge round of applause. A sort of 'thank you, God' followed by applause."
(Lighting And Sound International, February 1988)
"It is an allegorical play. That's more apparent when you read it, than when you see it onstage. At least I hope it is. There's nothing worse than sitting through a lot of symbols floating about being meaningful. I think any so-called message should only occur to people afterwards - and then only if they care to think about it. At the time, it's a comedy that turns into an adventure story and finally a fantasy-adventure story. I once described it as Saturday Morning Cinema for Grown Ups."
(Personal correspondence, 1990)
"Way Upstream was one of my darker plays. There have been several and the later ones are all a bit that way inclined. Way Upstream is an allegory, really. It starts out normally enough with two couples setting off on a river holiday in a hire boat. Really it uses the boat as a pretext to examine the nature of leadership - in this case the boat's skipper and who gives the orders. They are eventually taken over by modern pirates. Who nearly kill them. Someone described the play as a mixture of John Boorman's film Deliverance and Peter Pan. I didn't mind that."
(Personal correspondence, 28 March 1993)
"I have a theory that plays are formed by several seeds coming together. It is very important to have a theme that you wish to pursue. Take a play like Way Upstream as an example. I wanted to write a play about the nature of leadership, and why some members consider themselves to be leaders and others don't, and the ones who do consider themselves to be leaders are obviously the ones who shouldn't be anyway, and the ones who don't consider themselves to be leaders would probably make very good ones if they put themselves forward. It's an ironic twist. Just to write a play with five or six people sitting in a living room discussing it would probably be very boring, but I got the idea of setting it in a cabin cruiser on the River Thames, because that is where the nature of leadership always comes out. You see these red-faced men in yachting caps shouting at their reluctant families 'Come along darling, tie up, tie up, come on!' That was three or four ideas in one play."
(The Haileyburian, Winter 1993)
"It was a play of mine that I felt changed the direction of my writing quite sharply. I think the changes are always much bigger in your own mind - probably - than they are in the minds of the public, but I felt that I moved quite a long way along a different route when I wrote this play. It's not overtly political in the sense a David Hare play or a Howard Brenton play would be, but it's certainly more political than my normal work. It is about the nature of leadership in society and about our responsibility to society and so on. I used the boat, the cabin-cruiser, containing these two warring families, as a sort of allegory really. It starts its journey on a river which looks for all intents and purposes like the River Thames, and finishes up at a place called Armageddon Bridge, which is at the end of nowhere and in the hands of sort of river pirates. And it's a strange and long journey it makes... It's quite a weird play, quite allegorical, quite surreal, and I was quite pleased with what I did at the time, because it was, as I say, an area I hadn't entered before, an area where I left realism gradually behind, like the boat as it went up river; its world becomes less and less real and more and more grotesque, I think."
"I wrote the play as an allegory about good and evil; to show that there comes a point where even the most peaceable of individuals has to stand up and be counted when the safety of the person they love is at stake. But I wanted the audience to have fun along the way - not to feel they were being preached at."
(Personal correspondence, 6 October 2006)
"I wrote the play at a time when this country seemed to be in a constant state of unrest. Both political parties held extremist positions while the great majority of us stood irresolutely in the middle, reluctant to take a stand. I was also wondering then about the generation before mine who went off to war and who were tested. You often ask yourself if you’d be capable of showing the required courage in such a situation - ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I also wanted to write about good and evil much more clearly than normal."
"What the play is, certainly, is a statement in support of moderation. Vince and Fleur (deliberately) are neither Left Wing nor Right Wing. Too easy, that. They are neither and both. They feed on lethargy and indifference; on apathy and ignorance. They are extremists and opportunists. Possibly even the evil in ourselves, who knows. When we don't believe in anything - something will soon present itself.
"The end of the play is the moment when Alistair decides, at last, to act. He could stay with Emma in their new found garden of Eden, but instead they resolve to go back and fight for the reasonable, for the middle ground."
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn