The Norman Conquests: Interviews with Alan Ayckbourn

This section contains various interviews with Alan Ayckbourn regarding The Norman Conquests. Click on a link in the right-hand column below to access the interviews.

This interview with Alan Ayckbourn by Jonathan Crouch was conducted in 2004 and is held in the Ayckbourn Archive.

Interview with Jonathan Crouch (2004)

What inspired you to write The Norman Conquests?
We used to run a summer season here at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough (before we started playing all year round) and at the end of one summer a local journalist asked me in passing what I was planning to write next year. I replied, rather airily, that I had no idea since it was then only September and the play didn't start rehearsing till the following May. "Who knows?" I added, more by way of a throwaway. "Possibly a trilogy, who can say?" When the same journalist phoned me the following March enquiring how the trilogy was going, I realised I had been hoist.

You wrote all three parts of The Norman Conquests in a crosswise fashion - that is to say you started with scene one of Round And Round The Garden and then scene one of the other two plays. Did this feel a natural way to write?
It was the natural way to write those plays. I needed to cross-plot the parallel stories and it was the simplest way of keeping track. I finished two of them in one night, I remember. I doubt that I'll ever do that again.

What inspired the central character, Norman, and was it to do with the time, the post-60s?
Norman was of his time, certainly. It amused me to conceive a character who felt it his God-given duty to please every woman he met. He sees himself as a New Man. In fact he is just an Old Man in New Man's clothing. Well, sort of. The joke is that he goes to inordinate lengths to seduce women who, for various reasons, don't really need that much persuading.
There's this wonderful piece of structural build-up in the first play,
Table Manners, as everybody is talking animatedly about the main character, Norman, who doesn't appear until act two.

Legend has it that because the actor for whom you wrote the part couldn't join the company at the start of the rehearsals, this was a practical way to enable the rehearsals to continue. Does being a practical craftsman sometimes affect the art?
It's a true story. Christopher Godwin, the original Norman, suddenly found he couldn't join rehearsals till the second week. I constructed
Table Manners to accommodate this. Actually, of course, it works rather in that play's favour since Norman's build-up is enormous. Also, as I was reminded when writing House & Garden nearly three decades later, it's hard to have characters in two places at once. But I've always felt that practicality, occasionally, concentrates the artistic mind enormously. For instance, all the plays up to the time the company moved to a new venue in 1977, had only two entrances. (Well, in Bedroom Farce we cheated a bit.) After that they often have three entrances - or even four.

Originally written to be performed in the round, how did moving it to a proscenium theatre affect the production?
Not too badly. There are some plays of mine that actually do suffer, I feel, in translation from round to proscenium. Taking Steps is one: Time of My Life another. Others, like Relatively Speaking, are probably better in the prose. The Norman Conquests is, like the majority, simply the same but different. You gain some things, you lose some. I think scale is more important. The round, certainly our round, is incredibly intimate, really. Most of the plays, outside of the ones written with the National Theatre's Olivier Theatre in mind, are thus written on a personal and very human scale. They don't benefit from being shouted, or from people generally banging about very much.

How did audiences respond to The Norman Conquests when you first wrote it in 1973, and do you think that people will respond in a similar way now, 30 years on?
Heaven knows how they'll take it now. I hope they'll enjoy them. They were written for fun and the plays, looking back on them, all have a great innocence about them. The characters get quite net up occasionally but they're totally devoid of malice or dark intentions. It's a celebration of love and that's still around, thank God.

You've written an incredible amount of plays, all of which have started off life at your theatre, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, which has become the most prolific new writing theatre in the regions. Does your role as artistic director inform your writing in any way or vice versa?
Yes, I've just finished number 66 called Drowning On Dry Land, which is due to open at the Stephen Joseph Theatre this May. It helps in one way to be both the writer and the artistic director in that your plays don't get turned down that often. But then, on the negative side, that does put a great deal of pressure on you. There's no doubt where the buck stops when you've written, directed and cast it. Things don't get any easier. I can tell you. And not quite all the plays have started life here. A Small Family Business was specifically written for the Olivier.

Copyright: Jonathan Crouch. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.
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