In the Moment, Every Moment

RELATIVELY SPEAKING by Alan Ayckbourn, directed by Robin Herford, with Robert Powell and Lisa Goddard, Theatre Royal, Brighton, Monday 5th Sept, 7.45pm

RELATIVELY SPEAKING by Alan Ayckbourn, directed by Robin Herford, with Robert Powell and Lisa Goddard, Theatre Royal, Brighton, Monday 5th Sept, 7.45pm

For me, theatre was the most rebellious thing I could do. I’d fled the farm, was determined never to be a teacher, and then, in needing to meet people at university in a town (Canberra) where I knew no one, I discovered theatre. And it was total embrace, a complete immersion, it seemed a whole world utterly removed from the Australia I knew, which was at that time, the 70s, and to my surprise, trying to discover its modern voice. Somehow or other I blagged my way into the first ever National Playwrights' Conference (there weren’t many playwrights then and I guess they were grateful for whoever they could get) being held in the hall of residence next door to my own (I had no interest in going anywhere for the holidays) and even went to a forum with John Osborne who got into a raging argument, literally a shouting match, with an actor. I can’t remember what about. A fellow first year student (I didn’t know her then) had her play workshopped at the conference. This was gob-smacking.

It’s an odd experience, growing up with a culture which is different from your own life experience. Theatre wasn’t really a topic of conversation in North Queensland, in my experience anyway. I can’t remember going to an actual play until I was about 19 and I saw Shaw’s Saint Joan, an odd choice. But I’d read a lot of course, and was drawn to those books which seemed to create a complete, if exotic and mysteriously unrecognisable world: Dickens, Mark Twain, and I’d discovered Henry James in my English course.

Theatre was the reading experience in real life. Pretty soon I was nuts about The Revenger’s Tragedy, by Tourneur then, and completely confused by Chekhov. I did every play, student and otherwise I could, including The Browning Version, The Bell Jar and something by a Czech writer set on a raft. I did student radio and discovered a sound studio under the library with staff who spent their time making recordings of lectures, so were more than happy to do programmes on Thomas Hardy poems and obscure Australian plays about Anzac Day to break the monotony.

I guess what I’m leading up to is my sheer amazement, not to say envy, at Alan Ayckbourn’s having written this play when he was only 25. I think I recognise the sheer joy, the excitement, of being given the opportunity to write for the theatre while working in the theatre every day.

And looking back, this time, the mid sixties, turned out to be a wonderful time to be young and alive and a playwright. I didn’t know this then, and it was over a few years really that I discovered Pinter and Stoppard and Beckett and found out that Beckett had been James Joyce’ amanuensis, but in discovering these writers and their work (and I still hadn’t been out of Australia) I loved their completeness, that the characters were born at the beginning and died at the end and were in the moment every moment.

I wasn’t completely unaware of Ayckbourn. I’d seen an amateur production of Absurd Person Singular and had even worked on a professional production of Bedroom Farce, but I’m ashamed to say that I associated his work with the kind of everyday horror I was on the run from.

Really it was on finding myself in an English theatre with an English audience and an English cast, in recognising that fleeting feeling of being utterly and completely in the moment, laughing uproariously along with everyone else, that Ayckbourn came into sudden focus.

He has channelled them all, Coward’s Private Lives, Osborne of course, Beckett, Pinter (he had acted in The Birthday Party and there have to be references to The Lover) and managed it with an unmatched joy and exuberance.

There are so many levels, so many layers. Everything is always on the table. Anything could happen, and frequently does. And there is never a moment without underlying conflict, of danger. Pinter makes everyday phrases the stuff of everyday nightmares. Ayckbourn makes these same everyday utterances the stuff of risk and excitement, of possibility and surprise.

It would have been easy for the production to take a particular angle, to choose one approach, but by the players never revealing their hands, all interpretations were always in play. We were never quite sure who knew what when, or who was playing whom.

It was a wonderful experience to be in an audience enjoying this play together, to feel that the theatre is genuinely central to the communal culture. But more than that, this play shows the delight, the power of ambiguity, the joy in uncertainty, the reward of the process as opposed to the tyranny of the outcome. This play, and the others from that golden age came before the big bang, before money became the be all and end all and we all became obsessed with the ends over the means, and it is a wonderful reminder of what we’ve let slip away, what we really ought to recover.

This is a terrifically enjoyable night in the theatre.

Paul Corcoran