On The National Joke
Interview with the SJT, April 2016
SJT: Torben, let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way from the off – you’ve been described recently in the media as ‘Alan Ayckbourn’s darker, younger brother’, his ‘lovechild’ and as ‘pupil’ to his ‘master’. How do you feel about those descriptions, and what really is your relationship with him?
TB: I have found that my link with Alan over the years has been something of a double-edged sword. As a playwright you have to get your first break somewhere and, since it was Alan and the SJT that gave me my first professional production, I have been stuck with these master/pupil and mentor/protégé labels ever since. Ultimately I think it boils down to lazy journalism. I have never been mentored by anybody. My first play (A Listening Heaven) appealed to Alan probably because it inhabits the same landscape: social commentary presented by means of tragi-comic drama, focussing on the dysfunction of English middle-class lives. My early drafts were a little clumsy and my sense of dramatic structure was rather raw. This was in the pre-email mid 1990s and I remember receiving two letters from Alan (I was living in London and he was obviously in Scarborough) where he pointed out a few ways of pacing the play more effectively. That was about it. That was my “mentoring.” However somehow this has metamorphosed over the years into all the descriptions you outline. So my work is generally compared to his rather than looked at in its own right, which sometimes gets a bit boring. I did one interview recently where I pleaded with the journalist not to make out in his article like I was Alan’s lovechild or something. Sure enough the headline was TORBEN BETTS: “I AM NOT ALAN AYCKBOURN’S LOVECHILD.” Having said all this, to be associated/compared with the country’s most performed and successful playwright can’t be all bad. I will always of course be grateful to Alan for launching me as a playwright (the doors of places like the Royal Court and the National Theatre have always been closed to me) and also for giving me the confidence to carry on when I was young and thinking of packing it all in!
SJT: The National Joke has a strong political angle, both party and family politics – what inspired you?
TB: I think all of my plays tend to be political in nature but I prefer to examine the state of the nation (and its politics) by means of the personal. So instead of having big, raging political discussions on stage (though these do occasionally flare up in my work) I like to look at the wider picture by seeing how individuals react with each other. I feel there is much wisdom in eastern philosophy and if we want to see how the world operates we’d be well advised to see how two people interact. Or how we as individuals interact with existence. In our solitude. That is the world. That is society. At any one moment the way we are interacting with our wife, our husband, our friends, our kids: that is the world. That is what we call society, functional or otherwise. Play that out on a large enough scale and you have the mess we currently find ourselves in. There are politicians in some of my plays, but not many. Clearly your average politician tends to assume the role of the world changer, the life improver and so it’s always interesting to see if the way they conduct their personal relationships matches up to their great vision of a better society. Now, of course, with the rise of Corbyn, we have a more vibrant political landscape than we did even a year ago, where there is now a genuine socialist alternative to the prevailing right-wing capitalist orthodoxy, not just Blue Tories and Red Tories, as we had when Miliband was Labour Leader. I have tried to bring that into The National Joke. The title comes from the Tory view of Corbyn ( was it Johnson or Cameron who described him thus?) but then who is the national joke when we also have Pig-Gate and the Panama Papers etc?
SJT: The show is set during a solar eclipse, which allows for some memorable moments. What came first in your imagination – the story, or the eclipse?
TB: My plays come in two styles. You could describe them as Howard Barker (but a bit lighter) on the one hand and Alan Ayckbourn (but a bit darker) on the other. These two playwrights are at completely opposite ends of the theatrical spectrum. When I have my Ayckbourn hat on (that is to say writing tragi-comic social realism) I’m always on the look-out for means of keeping people together in one space. Trapping them, as it were. This is why family get-togethers have always been very fertile ground for creating comic tension. If you’re not family you can just leave when things get too uncomfortable. Family members aren’t always those we’d choose to hang out with. But on occasions we have to. I was a few years ago reading a book called Totality, which is all about the history and science of the solar eclipse (and also how man has viewed these events before the science was understood) and I thought it would be a great way to frame a play. Gives a reason for a family to come together and also provides an interesting theatrical device. I had the characters in my head before the idea of the eclipse but both came together at the same time to make this particular play.
SJT: You and director Henry Bell have snared an extremely strong cast: Philip Bretherton, who many of our audiences will remember from that lovely comedy As Time Goes By, Annabel Leventon (who was in the original 1968 cast of Hair!), Guy Burgess, Cate Hamer and Catherine Lamb. We believe you were closely involved in the casting process?
TB: Theatre is all about the actors. Get the right actors and you’re always in with a chance. So I do like to be involved in casting. Fortunately Henry and I agreed on all five without any cross words, mindless violence or weird bargaining (you can have her if I can have him). Vickie Ireland was also casting for her Just So Stories which meant that all three of us had to agree. Which we all did. And, yes, we do have a very strong cast. Cate was in my play The Swing of Things (SJT, 2007) but I’ve not worked with the others. Really looking forward to it.
SJT: And finally – we know you’ll be in Scarborough at least once during the summer, as you’re doing a talk on Thursday 23 June. But are you the sort of writer who likes to sit in throughout rehearsals, or do you prefer to keep away until first night?
TB: I tend to be on hand for the whole of week 1 of rehearsals (mainly to make cuts) and then I come back towards the end of week 3. Most actors like having the writer about but not too much. You have to allow the director and the actors to explore the play with freedom. And if the writer is around this can inhibit them to a certain extent. You have to let your baby go.