THE NORMAN CONQUESTS
By Alan Ayckbourn
The Wolsey Theatre
When an iconoclastic director like Andrew Manley meets realistic drama like Ayckbourn's Norman Conquests trilogy something's got to give, and in Ipswich it's the theatre.
The Wolsey Theatre is being converted to accommodate traverse staging, with the audience on two sides to watch the events of a weekend as the adulterous Norman wreaks havoc in a middle-class family.
Proceedings are seen in the three plays from the dining room (Table Manners), living room (Living Together) and garden (Round and Round the Garden).
Manley sees the Conquests as the culmination of Ayckbourn's technical ingenuity at the time and as the logical extension of the craft of the well-made play, "In the old-fashioned box set play the question for the writer is how you get people on and off. Where have they come from? Where do the go to?' The answer is that they go from and to scenes in the other plays."
Seating the audience on two sides does away with box sets and throws concentration on to the characters. It's likely Manley won't be averse to the lighting spilling over on the audience, especially between scenes.
"The plays were written to be performed in Scarborough in the round, and one thing I often notice in Ayckbourn's audiences there is how they're sat looking at each other as well as the action. They are the character. People can laugh at themselves, fairly safely," says Manley.
As for Norman, who pursues one woman after another, innocently declaring he only wants to make people happy, "Everybody knows someone like that, saying self-satisfied or slightly sinister things. We're more aware of their innate selfishness now than we were then."
"then" being the early seventies when the Conquests trilogy first appeared.
While Manley believes Nor-man can appear quite attractive, he sees him as complex and difficult to cast. "He doesn't quite belong anywhere. He gets on with everyone yet never has an ongoing relationship and he's quite intelligent. We see him as more of a misfit now than we would have in the seventies - an oddball, an outsider."
Ayckbourn's plays have been seen as growing darker since Absent Friends, which came shortly after the trilogy. Yet we look back and find greater depth than was usually discovered in his early career. Manley talks of, "the absolute and awful reality of what's going on".
Which suggests that the Ipswich Conquests could be a bleak affair. "That's another reason for doing them in traverse. Walls start to make things real and cosy. Traverse staging should strip it down," letting us see the plays without trimmings and period pieces of set.
timothy ramsden Ipswich, Wolsey Theatre, January 14-March 6 (full day trilogy day), tickets: 01473 253725. Also: Mold, Clwyd Theatr Cymru, to December 5 (fulltrilogy day), tickets: 01352 755114.