An Interview With Alan Ayckbourn and Sir Peter Hall

This article was published in The Times on 22 March 2010 prior to Sir Peter Hall's acclaimed revival of Bedroom Farce transferring to the West End. Sir Peter Hall died in 2017 and the interview took place a year before Sir Peter was diagnosed with dementia in 2011.

Ayckbourn and Hall, the chairmen of the boards

By Valerie Grove

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Sir Peter Hall & Alan Ayckbourn
Copyright: National Theatre

The two theatrical knights met last week for the first time in years, and The Times had a front-row seat.
At 5.45 pm precisely, a taxi draws up outside a stucco-fronted terraced house in Chelsea. It brings Sir Alan Ayckbourn, our most prolific and often-performed playwright, to the home of his old friend Sir Peter Hall, the man who created the Royal Shakespeare Company and then took the National Theatre to its South Bank home as its artistic director in 1976. It is some years since the two have met - neither can quite remember the last time - but their careers have been curiously intertwined in the past four decades.
Now, in the same week, Ayckbourn has come south from his base in Scarborough to direct a revival of his 1979 farce
Taking Steps in the round at the Orange Tree in Richmond. Meanwhile Hall opens his revival of Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce - a sellout at the Rose in Kingston last autumn - at the Duke of York’s in the West End.
The original London production, which the two men directed together, was the first Ayckbourn play to appear at the National, after shows such as
Absurd Person Singular and The Norman Conquests had made him the darling of the commercial sector.
Ayckbourn, 70, mounts the front steps hesitantly, aided by a stick - which he needs since the stroke that he suffered in 2006. Hall, who will be 80 later this year, opens the door, wreathed in smiling bonhomie.
I am to be their audience of one.

[The curtain rises on Hall’s elegant drawing-room. Enter the two theatrical knights.]

Hall: You don’t want coffee or tea or anything? I’m afraid my wife’s not here ...
Ayckbourn: I’ve been rehearsing all day, I’m all coffee’d and tea’d out.

[Flashback to 1973, when Hall first heard about the clever young playwright.]

Hall (vaguely):
I think I was still at Stratford . . .
Ayckbourn (with more precise recollection): It was Sheila Hancock who brought me into your consciousness. She told you: 'Come and see me in this play Absurd Person Singular - he ain’t the writer you assume he is.' So you invited me to come and see you, and you said: 'I’m opening a new theatre on the South Bank…' and showed me round the unfinished building….
Hall: With those terrible hard hats on.
Ayckbourn: The Lyttelton looked to me like a baseball ground. But when I got to know it, it got smaller.
Hall: Theatres do get smaller, the older they get. And more congenial.
Ayckbourn: You told me: 'You can do without the National Theatre, but can the National Theatre do without you?' I left feeling a little glow. But it was daunting. I was used to small spaces. So I wrote a play dividing the stage into three parts - and that was Bedroom Farce.
Hall: And it worked. It was meant.
Ayckbourn: We got a lot of critical flak though, didn’t we. 'What is this man doing, using a commercial writer at the National?' A stern body of opinion felt the National should not deviate from the classics.
Hall: Yes, they said: 'Why are you doing this popular play, Mr Hall?' We smiled bravely and carried on.
Ayckbourn: One critic wrote: 'I laughed shamelessly.'
[Laughter]
Hall: Harold Hobson once wrote, about The Love Match at the Victoria Palace: 'I am still laughing.' They put this outside the theatre and since it said underneath 'Now in its seventh year', one felt rather sorry for him.
Ayckbourn: Peter gave me respectability. He was from the RSC, the posh side of the tracks... Like all clowns who want to play Hamlet, I was anxious to be taken seriously. He told me: 'You belong here.' He took me off the streets.
Hall: Interesting - the breadth of repertoire never gets criticised at the National today. A three-theatre complex, a score of plays per year, can’t have just one style of handwriting. Now they do the old, the new, the shocking - a tremendously wide spectrum. I’m jolly proud of them. Just been to see London Assurance - a marvellous company of actors, in full possession of theatre and audience.

[In 1977 Bedroom Farce, with Joan Hickson, Michael Kitchen and Maria Aitken, was a triumph for the National Theatre. Ayckbourn and Hall were co-directors.]

Ayckbourn: But after a couple of weeks you left it all to me. You said: 'If you need me, I’ll be next door.' I said: 'Doing what?' You said: 'Volpone.' And I said: 'Oh, that old thing.' But I never had to bang on the wall. Then you came back for the techs - you were the boss.
Hall: It’s a very tricky play, technically. The scene breaks - from one bedroom to another and back again - electrically, the lighting, the timing are crucial. Any wrong move wrecks the rhythm.
Ayckbourn: It really does need directing. There’s no big central character weaving his way through, dictating the pace. The secret of tempo in plays is variety.
Hall: So the actors must listen to what’s before and after them.
Ayckbourn: I’ll never forget Bedroom Farce’s first night in Birmingham. By the end of eight weeks rehearsing the actors couldn’t even raise a smile, and would corner me and say: 'Sorry to let the play down.' Then we opened, and it was like a football match - the crowd just roared. It was amazing, the energy unleashed. The laughter got out of control, the time overran...
Hall: I love the first time actors meet an audience. There’s a purity about it, almost an innocence.

[Hall invited Ayckbourn to form his own company at the National, to direct A View from the Bridge, etc.]

Hall: What thrilled me was seeing you as an emergent director. Alan did some fine productions - some not even written by him.
Ayckbourn: I think we both direct by stealth. We don’t stand at the back of the stalls and shout 'Stop!' All the best notes, for me, are given in the green room or the canteen.
Hall: Absolutely.
Ayckbourn: When I was a young actor, you’d sit around, very formal, and the director would wag his finger at each individual.
Hall: Interesting thing about notes. You can see an actor missing doing something, and if you tell him what he should do, he won’t do it, because he’s a cussed bugger. But if you say: 'I think you were so wise not to…' then he’ll do it. It rather works, I find.
Ayckbourn: Remember when Mrs Thatcher invited you to a reception at Downing Street and you asked me to come with you because 'she likes you'? You’d had this terrible rift, you’d made a speech that incensed her, while I was obviously Mr Good Guy for writing user-friendly plays. In the cab, you said: 'You go in before me. I can’t face her.' So we stood in line, my name was announced - and she totally ignored me, she saw you and swept past with a cry of 'Peter!' and grabbed you - and I was left there, not knowing anyone except Michael Winner.

[In 1988, Hall was being hounded by the press, having left his third wife Maria Ewing for Nicki Frei, the future Lady Hall. Ayckbourn rescued Hall by inviting him to Scarborough.]

Hall (chortling): I was stashed in the back of my secretary’s Mini-Cooper under a raincoat, driven out through the National’s scenery door, and sped to King’s Cross…
Ayckbourn: I opened the front door, Peter was bundled in and under his arm was a copy of War and Peace. I asked him: 'Are you staying long?' And we could see through the curtains men in cars with long lenses, coffee cups and sandwiches. My wife Heather went out, and when they asked: 'Is Peter Hall in there?' she said (wonderingly) 'Peter Hall? No - but I’ll look out for him.' And they went away!
Hall: Consummate performer, your wife... How’s it going, at the Orange Tree? Lovely little theatre.
Ayckbourn: The irony here is that Bedroom Farce is not strictly farce - but Taking Steps is genuinely a farce. It was agony to write. In the first act you take the audience by the hand and lead them across the floor. In the second you start to walk them up the wall. And in the third act you begin to walk them on the ceiling, so they end up hanging upside down saying: 'Hey, what am I doing?' It’s all sleight of hand. Taking Steps is peculiarly, of all my work, a round play. When it was done before, at the Lyric... Well, when the curtain came down on the first act, on the first night, my wife burst into tears. Not a good sign. On the proscenium stage it had lost all its charm.
Hall: Well, we wouldn’t have brought Bedroom Farce to the West End, even with your imprimatur, if we hadn’t opened at Kingston first. And Ayckbourn used to be king of the West End! Once upon a time producers used to ask me: 'What would you like to do?' And mostly they let me do it. Now, their first question is: 'Who can you get?' So you suggest some improbable American actor, and they say: 'He must be 55 - can he get away with 20?'

[Hall and Ayckbourn had talked at length on the phone, when recasting Bedroom Farce for the West End transfer - jointly resisting the management’s daft suggestions.]

Ayckbourn: When you move into the West End there’s awful pressure from producers; they try and sneak someone from a reality TV show past you. But we hung on in there.
Hall: You’ll never get it right if you get the casting wrong. You just end up torturing the poor fellow who’s not properly cast…
Ayckbourn (shaking his head): …however good he is. And the pool of actors who can command an audience - Dame Judi, Dame Maggie - is now practically zero. So they trawl through the movies and television. Occasionally you get an Al Pacino or a Kevin Spacey who started in theatre, or someone who can be heard - but in three nights they are off, indisposed, and a poor little understudy is squeaking their way through the role.

[Noises off from Smudge, Cavalier spaniel. Ayckbourn says he often gets credited with Frayn’s Noises Off.]

Ayckbourn: I say I wish to God I had his royalties from it.
Hall: Oh, I think you must be doing all right, Alan. (Laughing) Why don’t you write a few more?
Ayckbourn: I have a new one, opening in September [his 75th], called Life of Riley. Riley never appears: he’s a dying man, and it’s about the people left behind. I’ve always wanted to write a comedy that finishes with a funeral, and get laughs.
Hall: So we’ll all have to go up to Scarborough.
Ayckbourn: Trevor Nunn came up to see the double bill of House & Garden. We held a garden fête in the bar, with a human fruit machine, where you could win a Mars Bar. Trevor kept feeding 10p pieces into their hands, and eventually (cued by me) they let him win a Mars Bar. He was so excited, like a little boy. We waved him off - 'Bye, Trevor!' - and I said: 'If the plays don’t get him, the Mars Bar will.' And he gave us the Olivier and the Lyttelton!
Hall: But in September I shall be doing The Rivals at Bath.
Ayckbourn: I’ve still got My Wonderful Day on tour - Windsor next week. The lead role is a nine-year-old Afro-Caribbean girl - my casting director said: 'Thanks a bunch!' - but she found me this tiny actress that I was convinced was 9. And she turned out to be 28! Quite extraordinary. But [gloomily] if it comes in, it’ll go into too big a theatre... I’m out of love with the West End.
Hall: It’s very easy to fall out of love with. But sometimes a miracle happens. [Brightening] The National has asked me to do a production for my 80th birthday. I’m going to do Twelfth Night. I said I’d like to go in the Cottesloe, and I will only do it with my daughter Rebecca. In November we start rehearsing.
Ayckbourn: Writing is one thing, but when I go into a rehearsal room, the entire cast is mostly much younger than me, and their energies just lift me. I come out with my batteries recharged. Directing is wonderful.
Hall: Oh, it’s a good job. The best.

[Curtain]

This article was originally published in The Times on 22 March 2010.

Copyright: Valerie Grove. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.