Alan Ayckbourn – 'Plays brew in my head for anything up to a year and then I just have to burst out'

Ayckbourn's two-part, sci-fi tale of gender and sexuality

Alan Ayckbourn in 1981 / courtesy of Scarborough Theatre Trust

Alan Ayckbourn is not so much a prolific playwright as a theatrical institution but his innovative new work finds him finally happy to pass on the directorial mantle

When a man has written 82 plays, you could forgive him for treading old ground. Alan Ayckbourn is just such a man, but there's something about him (78 years old and semi-retired yet knocking out at least one play a year and directing another) that means he's always moving on. 'I am anxious not to repeat myself,' he says. 'People say "does it get easier to write?", and it does in a sense because you get a facility; but equally as difficult is you say "oh my God, I've done that"!'

The urge to reinvent himself is pathological. It's why he wrote a farce in which a single stage represented all floors of a three-storey house (Taking Steps). It explains how he came to write two plays of exactly the same length simultaneously performed by one cast legging it between adjacent theatres (House and Garden). And it's the reason he wrote one play with 16 variations subject to an onstage toss of a coin (Intimate Exchanges).

The habit continues. Premiering at Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre this September is A Brief History of Women in which characters are visible in four rooms but can be heard only when the lead player is present. Ayckbourn calls him 'Open-Mic Man'. After a lifetime of innovation, does he worry about getting set in his ways? 'It is a fear but one tries to keep fresh. If you run a theatre for as many years as I did, people get out of the habit of coming, so you've got to present them with something where they say "hello! That I've got to see".'

Even by those own adventurous standards, The Divide, his Edinburgh International Festival debut, is an unlikely proposition. Fearing Ayckbourn the writer and Ayckbourn the director had fused into a creature too confident in his own abilities, he chose to write a piece that would be beyond his directorial range. Perhaps it wouldn't be a play at all, more an expansive prose experiment somewhere between a diary and a scrapbook.

'I set myself into freefall,' he says, describing a fragmented collage of fictional government memos, verbatim reports and children's hand-written essays. 'I wrote something I knew was going to be virtually impossible for me to direct. Budget-wise it was too big, logistically it was impossible: bottomless ponds, whole villages, waterfalls, caves … It was like a novel.'

When this curious five-part hybrid had a one-off public reading in 2015, it took nine hours and caused all the meal breaks to be delayed. The audience lapped it up. 'It was an extraordinary experience. I said then, "I guess this is the one-and-only time you are going to hear this in its entirety, so make the most of it, folks".'

We're sitting in the back garden of his house, a converted Georgian school perched on the hillside overlooking Scarborough's South Bay. If ever there was a playwright you'd expect to find in such a pleasant English idyll, it is Alan Ayckbourn. Taking cover from the afternoon sun beneath a parasol, he's a little stiff since having a stroke in 2006 and is awaiting the arrival of his osteopath to have a go at a back pain. In every other respect, he is sharp and lucid, genial, quick to laugh and self-deprecating, a man still restlessly in search of the next theatrical kick.

In the garden below us, between the bushes and the pond, is the wendy house where, since the late 1980s, he has written his plays with only a cat for company. Which isn't to say he's spent very much time in there. Eighty-two plays or not, Ayckbourn is a notoriously fast writer. 'Plays brew in my head for anything up to a year and then I just have to burst out. I start and they're usually written within a fortnight. That is getting all the ideas out in some semblance of an order. Then maybe a week or two revising it.' He says it took him a long time to write The Divide, it being 80,000 words and all ('it seemed to go on forever'), but when pressed, it turns out 'a long time' means a whole 'month or two'. Ayckbourn is not a man to waste time.

Now it's the job of director Annabel Bolton to make sense of The Divide, a task she was eager to take on from the moment she joined the audience at that first reading. 'She keeps mentioning things like "oh, we've got a choir",' says Ayckbourn, both alarmed and intrigued about the first of his plays he has not directed since the late 1950s.

Performed in two three-hour sittings, The Divide is set in a science-fiction future where, because of an illness fatal in men, the two sexes have been compelled to live independently of each other. The all-male society of the north has kept its distance from the all-female population of the south and, as a result, reproduction occurs wholly by artificial insemination. Homosexuality has become mainstream. A woman who has lived through it all must try to define the new normal.

'The norm is a same-sex relationship,' says Ayckbourn. 'So the abnorm then becomes heterosexuality. There are a lot of angry colonels writing to the papers, saying "what's wrong with being two men together? How disgraceful to introduce women into this wonderful club! Women are a perversion and a distraction". I just wanted to change all the norms.'

As well as the formal innovation, The Divide shares another Ayckbourn characteristic with its focus on women. 'There are two reasons for that. One was that I was brought up in a single-parent family with a mother who gave me a somewhat biased slant on the world from the woman's point of view. Most of her friends were women and I spent my formative years listening to women talking. The second is when I started writing for the theatre, we were running a company up here and it was a 50–50 split, a genuinely egalitarian company.'

It's an approach he maintained in The Divide. 'I strictly limited myself to the women's side of the divide because it was more interesting. I imagined the other side in little glimpses as male mayhem, with a lot of violence in the streets.'

I leave him pondering how he'll feel to see The Divide in the hands of another director. 'It'll be strange,' he admits. 'It's weird enough going to see a second production of a play of mine. With this one, I've no idea how it is going to look or sound. I can't wait to see it, but I'm a very anxious author.'

The Divide, King's Theatre, Leven Street, 8–20 Aug (not 10, 14), various times, £10–£32.

The Divide - Part 1

The Divide is an extraordinary new work by one of the UK’s greatest storytellers, Alan Ayckbourn. Unfolding over two parts, The Divide is a tale for our own turbulent times that unflinchingly examines a dystopian society of brutal repression, forbidden love and seething insurrection. A century from now England is hit…

The Divide - Part 2

Part two of The Divide - an extraordinary new work by one of the UK’s greatest storytellers, Alan Ayckbourn. The Divide is a tale for our own turbulent times that unflinchingly examines a dystopian society of brutal repression, forbidden love and seething insurrection. A century from now England is hit by a deadly…

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