Virtual Reality: Interview

The following is an edited transcription of an interview with Alan Ayckbourn broadcast on the BBC World Service's Meridian on 8 February 2000.

With your new play, Virtual Reality, it suggests you’re fascinated by new technology, but is it fair to say you’re fearful of it as well. You’re both drawn to it and somewhat repelled by the implications of it?
Yes, I see the play as a cautionary tale. I love new technology and I’m the man who always buys the first of everything, usually the size of a large suitcase which turns out to be a mobile phone. With this play, what I was trying to do was to say, yes technology is wonderful and, in essence, what it does is improve communications between us. We have the miracles of mobile phones, we have the miracles of email, internet, fax and so on - all those things that should make communication between us faster and cleaner. But I think the danger is what we’re losing is person to person contact and the sharing of feelings, which don’t look too good on emails. We tend on emails to be terse, blunt and even have symbols show when we’re making a joke in case they get misinterpreted; it sorts of replaces the exclamation mark which was there in old-fashioned writing. So Virtual Reality was informed by that.

Also, I had seen, only recently, two young couples sitting at a restaurant in London, on mobile phones, simultaneously talking to four other people who were not there. They spent the entire evening doing this. They described to the people who they were talking to on the other end of the phone, who they were with, what they were eating, where they were, but it was a virtual meal. It didn’t exist for the four of them and I wondered why they had chosen to go out with the three other people in the first place. And this led me to thinking that Alex, the protagonist in the play, has a wife who is a very successful television presenter and always has something plugged into her ear, usually the comm linking to the producer in the gallery all the time - they’re miraculous people able to present programmes while someone is yelling instructions in the other ear! When she’s not on that, she’s on the phone and when she’s not on that, she’s listening to a walkman. There’s very few times when any communication is possible.

Alex has an unusually long speech for you in Virtual Reality. How much of that character speaking is Alan Ayckbourn speaking?
I think there’s quite a lot of me in that. I do feel occasionally the premise that we have no real centre to our lives. I think it started way back in the last decade with plays like A Small Family Business, when I then suggested that without a written moral code, which we seem to have abandoned, we could adjust what we wanted to suit ourselves; in that case it was a play about dishonesty which led to other things. But in this I think I’ve gone that little bit further and said that if we don’t have any prescribed right or wrong in our lives, it’s a very grey area. We sort of instinctively know certain things are wrong - most civilised people do - but where we stop and where we start and, indeed, who we are, without people telling us becomes increasingly difficult.

Is there a side of you when writing that constantly thinks, how am I going to do this? I’ve set myself a problem, how am I going to solve it?
With Virtual Reality, I needed to create a visual screen with the idea there’s a man that makes things called Viewdows which are electronic windows with views. But there is one particular programme he runs which is just a gardener pottering around a nice sort of English verdant garden and you can sit and watch him all year as he gardens. Well, I thought, how do you do this? You immediately think of video, of filming it and showing it and I was sitting there, puzzling over this and thinking of expensive video equipment but the fact is there’s something in me which is live theatre and I suddenly thought, ‘no, this is live theatre, what are you doing putting video on stage?' We’ve all come out from the video to presumably get away from the video! Of course, it was immediately obvious that we would try to create something theatrically live but which looks like a miraculous video. And actually three dimensional figures in gardens you can’t really improve if you put an ordinary person in a garden!

Your plays frequently deal with adultery, are you moralistic in the plays?
I think in a sense I am, I like to think I am. I’m not saying, ‘smite the adulterer’, but I do think that occasionally we give in - Alex in Virtual Reality is somewhat different because he just allows himself to get into that situation - it’s just as much as if he seduced the girl - but in fact she more or less manoeuvres him and he just allows himself to drift in neutral. He lives his life in neutral and anyone who’s passing and gives him a shove, he goes 100 yards down a road he probably didn’t intend to go down. But it is true, it reflects his passing affair with this actress, who’s much younger than him and in the end completely unsuited - they’re never going to get it together, as they say but what it does is it has the effect of a house of cards. The first thing is his wife, who thinks of herself as a modern women in an open relationship, is completely knocked sideways, but then the domino effect happens and his friend’s marriage then comes under strain. Most of us, if we live long enough, have friends who are couples who appear to be completely solid and there for us and occasionally one of them, like a star, explodes and two people who were one are suddenly two and not only that, they’re probably not speaking to each other and if you want to see them you have to carefully edit your own dialogue not to include the recently estranged partner in the conversation otherwise thunder clouds form. And it becomes extremely disturbing to your own relationship because you can’t help looking at what you are and saying, ‘could we be under that sort of strain because we just assumed they were there for us forever, like our parents.’ It reflects the theme I think, that we tend to grab safe permanencies in our lives and say, ‘they’re there, John and Mary, are always there for us, they’ve always been there for us and always will be and we’ll have them around for supper for the fifth time this year.’ Suddenly, it isn’t it’s John and Elspeth and Mary and Jim and that doesn’t work as half of us doesn’t really like Jim very much and so we want to get her round and not Jim. In a funny way that’s quite amusing, the real irony is that we sort of resent this - how dare they do this to us!

You were once described you as an instinctive feminist, would you buy that description or not?
I think I was brought up amongst women, I was a single parent family as it were and my mother looked after me. I suppose I got quite a lot of female propaganda from an early age and she was also the bread-winner of the family. She wrote short stories and there was very little male presence in my formative years. My father came occasionally and I was very fond of him but I didn’t see enough of him to form a real bond. I suppose my mother’s occasional railings against the male sex was probably quite strong propaganda and I began to think maybe I got born wrong! But I am very sympathetic and I'm interested in the journey women have made during my lifetime from the trapped presence in the house as a housewife with less power and then slowly the empowerment of them. The women I deal with in Virtual Reality are professional women under enormous pressure and I think often that biologically, because they are the bearer of children and have extraordinary biological clocks, that the pressure on them in professional life - certainly in the top levels of media - is extremely high and must be incredibly difficult to cope with sometimes. I do see women coping wonderfully but I do see often in my life, signs of fraying, just because of what they’re doing - they’re pioneering in a way.

Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Transcription copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.