“In general, by an odd quirk of nature, the more fond of people I become, the more amusing I tend to find them. Love affairs in my life are matters of considerable hilarity.” – Alan Ayckbourn
About The Norman Conquests: “The garden. Saturday 5:30 pm. The garden is overlooked by a Victorian country-vicarage-type house with terrace and French windows leading directly into a sitting-room. Once obviously well laid out, it is now wildly overgrown.” – Opening stage direction from Round and Round the Garden
Round and Round the Garden is part of The Norman Conquestss, a trilogy, by British playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn. The trilogy follows the romantic exploits of Norman, an assistant librarian, who is both charming and philandering, and who, over the course of one unruly summer weekend, strives to make the women in his life happy. Norman, his wife Ruth, her brother Reg and his wife Sarah, Ruth’s sister Annie, and Tom, Annie’s neighbor, become tangled up in a comedic yet poignant jumble of relationships over the course of the three plays.
In the span of one week, in 1973, Alan Ayckbourn wrote The Norman Conquests. The small-scale dramas are typical of Ayckbourn, whose plays are known for being both wildly comedic and deeply moving at the same time. Each play takes place in a different location — Table Manners is set in the dining room, Living Together in the living room, and Round and Round the Garden in the garden outside the house. Each play is self-contained, so can be viewed alone or in any order.
Mr. Ayckbourn said about his process of writing the trilogy: “Scarborough is a holiday town, which means that a large proportion of the potential audience changes every week of the summer. On Saturdays, the roads in and out of the town are scenes of mile-long queues as visitors leave and arrive. When I first considered the trilogy, I was aware that it would be optimistic to expect an audience like this necessarily to be able to give up three nights of their precious holiday to come to our one theatre. Any suggestion that it was essential to see all three plays to appreciate any one of them would probably result in no audience at all. Similarly, were the plays clearly labelled Parts One, Two and Three, any holidaymaker determined to play Bingo on Monday would probably give up the whole idea as a bad job. The plays would therefore have to be able to stand independently yet not so much that people’s curiosity as to what was happening on the other two nights wasn’t a little aroused. Second, as I have said, it should be possible to see them in any order. Third, since we could only afford six actors, they should have that number of characters. Fourth, ideally they should only have two stage entrances since that’s the way our temporary Library Theatre set-up is arranged (but then this is common to all my plays). There were other minor pre-conditions peculiar to this venture. The actor I had in mind to play Norman couldn’t join us for the first few days of the season – which necessitated him making a late first entrance in one of the plays (Table Manners) to facilitate rehearsals. If this all makes me sound like a writer who performs to order, I suppose it’s true. I thrive when working under a series of pre-conditions, preferably when they are pre-conditions over which I have total control.”
The plays were first performed in Scarborough, England, at the Library Theatre, now known as the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Ayckbourn’s artistic home and where almost all of his work premieres. His roots in the company go back to his career as an actor and stage manager in the 1950’s. The Stephen Joseph Theatre Company produces new and classical work in the round. Said playwright and screenwriter Tim Firth: “In Scarborough, any new writing had to stand its corner against the Ayckbourn and assorted classics in a summer season, which was hellishly frightening but, for me, invaluable.”
The Norman Conquests went on to earn international fame. Some awards the trilogy has received are: a Tony Award for Best Revival of Play, Tony nominations for Best Director, Featured Actor in a Play, Featured Actress in a Play, and Best Scenic Design; Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Ensemble Performance, Outstanding Revival of a Play, and Outstanding Director of a Play. In 1977, The Norman Conquests was adapted for television and starred Penelope Wilton, Tom Conti, and Penelope Keith, who won a BAFTA for her work as Sarah.
About the Playwright: Alan Ayckbourn was born on April 12th, 1939 in Hampstead, London. His mother was a novelist and his father a violinist with the London Symphony Orchestra. Before Ayckbourn became a playwright, he was a professional actor. At age fifteen, he acted in a school Shakespeare production and then began a professional acting career with the Stephen Joseph Company. Ayckbourn’s acting career spanned from 1956 to 1964. Ayckbourn wanted better roles to play, so Stephen Joseph, his colleague and dear friend, told him to write a part for himself in a play and, if it were worthy, the company would produce it. It was, and so began a long, and still on-going, relationship between Ayckbourn and the company. When he retired in 2009 as artistic director of the Stephen Joseph, he had held the position for 37 years. Even with all of the acclaim his plays have received, Ayckbourn has said that he feels perhaps his greatest achievement was the establishment of the company’s permanent home in 1996 fashioned from a former Odeon Cinema in Scarborough.
Biography from the Official Website of Alan Ayckbourn: 2016 marks Alan’s 55th year as a theatre director and his 57th as a playwright. He has spent his life in theatre, rarely if ever tempted by television or film, which perhaps explains why he continues to be so prolific. To date he has written 80 plays and his work has been translated into over 35 languages, is performed on stage and television throughout the world and has won countless awards. Major successes include Relatively Speaking, How the Other Half Loves, Absurd Person Singular, Bedroom Farce, and The Norman Conquests. In recent years, he has been inducted into American Theatre’s Hall of Fame, received the 2010 Critics’ Circle Award for Services to the Arts and became the first British playwright to receive both Olivier and Tony Special Lifetime Achievement Awards. He was knighted in 1997 for services to the theatre.
“Ayckbourn’s apparently light subject matter, on closer inspection, was not that light at all. The domestic comedies were full of real emotional pain and even violence that had been partially masked by his facility for comedy and theatrical ingenuity. “I don’t think that I’ve ever been a political writer, but I think I’ve been a social writer,” he says. “I am interested in the world around me although I generally write about the domestic, so it’s more the Jane Austen model of managing to reflect her times without having too much on the Napoleonic wars.” From The Guardian, 2014
Our Weston Production:
In an unprecedented collaboration, three professional theaters in Vermont have produced the trilogy of The Norman Conquests, each theater taking a different play. Living Together was performed at Northern Stage, April 20 – May 8th, Table Manners at Dorset Theatre Festival, June 16 – July 2nd, and now Round and Round the Garden is here at Weston. The same cast performed all three plays, using the same creative team, but each play was helmed by a different director. Our production is directed by Michael Berresse, whose work audiences will remember from last season’s production of Peter and the Starcatcher. Read more about this wonderful collaboration here.
“Alan Ayckbourn writes funny plays about sad people. It’s an unsettling combination, which may explain why England’s most popular and prolific playwright isn’t as well known in this country as he ought to be…” Terry Teachout
Thoughts from Cast Members Mark Light-Orrr (Reg) and Ashton Heyl (Ruth):
Piper Goodeve, Director of Education & Outreach: Being a part of a trilogy is really unique. Have you ever done a trilogy before?
Mark Light-Orr: The closest thing I’ve done to a trilogy was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Parts One and Two, which was combined into one four-hour English history extravaganza. It’s kind of comparing apples to oranges, but I think I can officially say that this is definitely more fun. Certainly less blood. And fewer broadswords.
PG: What is the most challenging part of being in a production like this, where you’ve done all three plays?
MLO: One of the most challenging things has been the preparation involved in preparing for each of the plays. Because the rehearsal processes have been fairly short and the three plays are being produced one right after the other, a lot the memorization and preparation for the next play had to be done during the performance run of the previous play. I often felt a sense of dread that the lines and the stage business of the play I was performing would be knocked out of my head by the new lines I was stuffing in there, but it seems to be working out!
PG: Talk a bit about each of the theaters where the trilogy was performed.
Ashton Heyl: All three spaces are very different, and I feel like it’s worked amazingly well based on where each play takes place. The thrust space at Northern Stage lent itself well to the living room space and the intimacy required for Living Together, and the wooden theatre space at Dorset felt like an extension of the dining room for Table Manners. We haven’t moved onto the stage at Weston yet, but I can’t wait to explore the garden in that space, as well.
PG: How did you come to be a part of this production?
MLO: For this job, I got the scenes to prepare the evening before the audition, which was pretty stressful, since there was no time to actually read the trilogy, a step I would normally take. Fortunately, the folks ‘behind the table’ (that is, the artistic directors of the three theatres, the directors of each play, and the various support staff) were one of the kindest, most responsive rooms I’ve ever auditioned for. Even if I hadn’t gotten the gig, I would have felt great about the audition, and to join such a marvelous group of actors was a real delight.
PG: Have you worked with anyone in the cast before?
AH: I had done a reading with Caitlin before, and had met Jenni briefly at another theatre we were both working at in different shows.
MLO: You never know when you sign on for these kinds of jobs what your colleagues are going to be like, and I think we absolutely lucked out. Everyone is a consummate professional, talented, and above all, fun to be around. We’re all each other’s greatest fans, and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything!
AH: It’s been a dream summer in Vermont! I don’t want the trilogy to end. Our cast is brainstorming other shows we can do together.