Relatively Speaking: Staging

Michael Holt is an acclaimed designer who has been designing for Alan Ayckbourn since 1977. During his career he has designed national and international productions of Ayckbourn plays which include Intimate Exchanges, Taking Steps, Man Of The Moment, Season’s Greetings, Absurd Person Singular, A Chorus Of Disapproval, House & Garden, Way Upstream, Just Between Ourselves and Things We Do For Love.
In this interview conducted by Simon Murgatroyd in 2007, he talks about his thoughts on designing Relatively Speaking.

Metropolitan Vs Countryside
You have to somehow present the idea of Metropolitan versus Country. Ginny is distinctly metropolitan with metropolitan values, metropolitan modes of behaviour which confront the distinctly rural values of Sheila. It’s part of the spring off the play that these people collide and don’t understand each other.
That’s what leads to the confusion. So the metropolitan and the country is the heart of the difference in terms of design.

The First Scene: The Flat
The short but vital opening scene, if you don’t get that right the play doesn’t mean anything. The opening scene is a trick to lead you down one avenue of thought; half of it is designed to persuade you that Greg doesn’t know anything and the other half is to make you suspect exactly the opposite.
The designer has got to make everything crystal clear. You can’t cut anything. You have to have a bathroom full of flowers; you have to see them or Ginny’s lie could remain just a lie. You have to make sure all the clues point towards Philip. You have to believe they’re Philip’s slippers. They have to be obviously man’s slippers.
It can pose huge logistical problems. There has to be a bathroom and a front door and you have to see both of them. They can’t be the same door as there has to be two exits. In the Proscenium Arch, you really have to create two doorways and that means you have to be able to get rid of it all and the bed. They’re not small problems; beds are big!
It’s also actually a prop rich scene too. There are phones and night-lights; where is the night-light? You need somewhere to put it on. Where does Greg put his clothes? On the floor, the bed, a chair? You get the impression Greg is a boy who likes order and can’t understand lack of order when he meets it. He’s probably not going to leave his clothes on the floor.

The Second Scene: The Willows
The scene-change is a difficult challenge as the first scene isn’t long enough to be an act. The change should come as a shock. It should be quite ‘oh, what now?’ When Greg arrives he’s a bit disorientated; there’s something about the kind of house which emphasises this feeling of disorientation; the front of the house should look like the back in some way.
I think these characters [Philip & Sheila] seem to exist only in the garden. I don’t get any feeling about what constitutes domesticity to them. It’s not drawn and it’s not important. The domestic end is secondary. I don’t even think Alan considers it as it’s totally irrelevant in this play.
You do get the impression this is an enclosed garden. That there is a wall or hedge outside; somewhere in this garden is a home of domestic bliss. You just get the feeling that there’s something protecting it from the metropolitan reality.
It’s also quite a big garden. They stroll down and around the garden and out of sight. It’s the kind of garden that has areas, definitely in the style of Blenheim.
The willows are very decorative, but they’re also enclosing and a bit sad. Of course they’re generally sad - weeping willows. There’s something about that marriage and that pretty garden which is hiding a fundamental sadness.

Costume And Period
Relatively Speaking was written in 1965 and much of the dialogue firmly roots the play to that era. Alan Ayckbourn has always argued his works are period pieces and of the time they were written and should always be performed as period pieces - or as Michael Holt suggests 'No period-period'; indeed he believes that taking them out of the time they were written can significantly affect the play's success.

Period only raises problems in one way. Part of the problem, if you’re not careful, you end up in funny ‘60s or ‘70s clothes. People end up in the bizarre end of the ‘70s.
Alan talks about no-period period. You have to find a non-period because otherwise you’re setting up expectations of social comment and Alan’s plays are not this, they’re character driven. What he’s writing about is character and they are not defined by their clothes. If you’re not careful you define who they are by the quirky period stuff. The clothes start to dictate who they are instead of the characters dictating how they should appear.
Basic styles don’t alter that much. It’s not hard to find a non-period period feel to the costumes.

Ginny: She’s going to the country but I think there wants to be a smell of the town about her. She’s also going on business to demand the letters back, something about her needs to be confrontational - if you’re not careful the point of going for the letters can be lost.
I imagine a bit of metropolitan about Ginny. She must, in any case, contrast with Sheila. She has to be an alternative to her.

Philip: I think there’s something that ties Philip at home and Philip in town. I don’t know how you indicate it. It might be the crockery or what he wears. Philip is schizophrenic. He would like to straddle both metropolitan and rural worlds. Visually, Philip also wants to be a little bit glamorous for this young girl to want and you have to show he’s a different person inside and outside The Willows.

Thoughts On Designing For The Round And The Proscenium Arch
In the round, a meal or table for four looks inwards and in a proscenium arch it looks outwards. Fundamentally these characters are looking inwards at each other. They are like a jigsaw where they only have half the pieces. If you open the play up for the proscenium arch, you somehow deflect the tension.

There are only two doors. It’s a play about arrival, you’re not leaving there. Once you’re through you’re going to stay for the duration. All Alan’s plays during this period are about arrival, only when he moves to the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round in 1976 do the play’s come to be about passing through.*

*The Library Theatre, Scarborough, where Alan premiered the majority of his plays between 1959 and 1976 was an in-the-round stage with only two stage entrances, as a result all Alan’s plays until 1976 have just two stage entrances.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.

The Relatively Speaking section of Alan Ayckbourn's Official Website is supported by Michael T. Mooney