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Surprises and Absurd Person Singular
In Alan Ayckbourn’s brave new world, described in his latest play Surprises, people live up to 200 years and time travel isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
“I like the idea of the film director Ridley Scott’s worlds, where everything is a bit off – things fall off the technology and break,” he says. “These are worlds which are slightly battered and everything is not human-proof. The fact is our machines are affectionately created with the best of intentions, but then we get our hands on them...”
His 76th play sees the country’s most performed living playwright return to the world of science fiction as explored in previous plays such as Miss Yesterday, Henceforward, Communicating Doors and Standing Room Only – albeit in his own idiosyncratic way.
“I’ve described it as a play with its head in the future but with its heart in the past,” he says, having not only penned but also directed both plays as part of the London 2012 Festival. “It’s science fiction but used as an allegory – as most good sci-fi is – to reflect what’s happening today and the issues I’ve picked up on recently.”
The play, which premiered at Scar- borough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre last month, depicts several intertwined love stories set in the near future that explore the central theme of longevity.
It will be running in rep at Chichester with the 1974 Evening Standard Award- winning comedy Absurd Person Singular, which follows three disastrous Christmas parties over three years.
“Surprises is really three one-act plays all interwoven, which structurally makes it quite interesting,” says Ayckbourn. “It also parallels the structure of Absurd Person Singular. Not only has Surprises got the same cast size but it’s also got a three-act structure, which is very rare nowadays. In fact, I haven’t used a three-act structure since I wrote Absurd Person Singular in 1972.”
Both productions feature stalwarts of Ayckbourn’s regular company, including Ayesha Antoine, Bill Champion, Laura Doddington, Sarah Parks, Richard Stacey and Ben Porter, who have appeared in more than ten recent Ayckbourn productions between them.
Ayckbourn was inspired to write along the theme of longevity after reading about the strain the increasing elderly population is putting on the National Health Service.
“The chances of people living longer and longer as the centuries go by are increasingly plausible and certainly quite interesting dramatically,” he says. “Most of you can already be replaced – although I think the brain will be the last thing it will be possible to replace – but practically everything else is fast becoming a spare part!
“I have a character in the play who’s 120 years old and says, ‘I’ve just seen my doctor for a check-up and he says if I take good care of myself, I probably have another good 60 years.’ “He’s already retired twice, had several lifetimes and doesn’t know what to do next. If we’re not able to plan our lives for the long-term, we are going to be in that situation, which will pose some interesting problems.”
Among those problems investigated in the play is what happens to relationships when life expectancy increases.
“A lot of people find it hard to sustain a marriage at a normal length of 20, 30 or 40 years,” says Ayckbourn. “But if we’re going to potentially have relationships going on for 100 years, maybe they will become difficult to sustain. Certainly some people will waiver slightly – ‘I promised this man my life, but do I have to stay with him all that time?’”
Added into this world where people can live for more than their three score years and ten is the division between rich and poor.
Ayckbourn admits his play is set in the world of the “seriously successful”.
“I think the division between rich and poor is likely to grow in the long-term,” he says. “The division of wealth will get increasingly lopsided. “There’s no easy solution as all that happens when you try to prevent that division is that other people get the wealth – a different class of people. “Realistically, once you have a pot of money and you leave several people in a room to split it up, someone will come out with more of it than the rest.”
Ayckbourn also touches on the idea of identity and the use of avatars, something that is appearing more in the news with the rise of the internet troll.
“We can pretend to be someone different when we’re behind a computer and never likely to meet the other person, but I actually think that’s just an extension of what we’ve always done in real life,” says Ayckbourn.
“We reach an age where we leave our parents and grow a little independent, then we meet someone we rather want to impress and we’re free to create a personality for them. “Unfortunately, we’re not very good at it and it tends to slip away! The fatal thing to do is to take him or her back to meet your parents, who are completely in the know about who you really are. Parents are like some terrible recording machine going, ‘Ah ha! Here’s a picture of when you were 15 and spotty and not as cool as you now appear to be!’”
In the world of Surprises, time travel has also been discovered and is available for use – not that it is attractive to Ayckbourn’s characters.
“We say, ‘This is such a wonderful invention!’ and then 20 years later we think, ‘Why the hell did we invent that?’” he says. “Our ability to misuse an invention such as time travel is enormous. It’s terribly dangerous, as once you try to start altering the past to affect the present, you’re bound to get into all sorts of trouble. “So time travel is no solution to problems for my characters and as one of the characters says, ‘It spoils the surprise of life’, and surely life is intended to be a surprise.”
Interview by Simon Murgatroyd
Words by Duncan Hall
- Ayckbourn will be at the Minerva Theatre talking about his new play with author Kate Mosse on Tuesday, August 14, from 6pm. Tickets are free but need to be booked through the box office in advance
- The Alan Ayckbourn double-bill will be at Minerva Theatre, Oaklands Park, Chichester, from Wednesday, August 8, to Saturday, September 8. Shows start at 7.45pm, with 2.30pm matinees on Saturday and Wednesday. Tickets from £23.50. Call 01243 781312