Staging The Norman Conquests

When Alan Ayckbourn wrote The Norman Conquests trilogy for the Library Theatre, Scarborough, during 1973, he was not convinced it would ever be produced again.

At the time, the prospects for a trilogy of plays being produced either professionally or by amateurs given the commercial challenges, seemed an unlikely prospect. Time obviously proved the playwright wrong as following their triumph in the West End during 1974, the trilogy has gone on to become one of Alan’s most celebrated and revived works.

With the trilogy currently being revived by the Tower Theatre in London and earlier this year at the The Bear Pit Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, it seemed apposite to revisit Alan Ayckbourn’s thoughts before the play had become so successful and how, in 1978, he wasn’t convinced it would be frequently revived.

This article, written by Alan for Amateur Stage magazine discusses his thoughts on the trilogy just five years after writing it as well as offering an insight into how he wrote it and guidance on how to produce it.

The poster for the West End premiere of The Norman Conquests

Staging The Norman Conquests by Alan Ayckbourn

It’s obviously not possible for many amateur societies, or for that matter professional companies, to do all three plays in repertoire. My only strong reason for arguing that wherever possible all three should be done is that they do make very good box-office, because quite often there’s a very nice “knock- on” effect – where people who have had their appetite whetted will come back and see two or all three. Certainly when we first did them we had a wonderful audience response – we tripled our audience, in fact. I realised that we were on a terrible gamble, because what may happen is that everybody hates the first play, and then we should be stuck rehearsing two more we were in honour-bound to put on – and we had three failures. Fortunately the reverse happened: the first play was very popular and people came back.

They’re not actually very difficult to stage. I work in a company where cheapness is a priority – we work on very low budgets. First you have three plays with three sets of identical costumes – so you have six hours of drama with very little outlay in the costume department. There are, of course, three different sets, but in London and indeed in our own productions two of the sets were virtually interchangeable. They’re all written for two entrances, and all we did in London was shift a window round; in one of the sets (Table Manners) there was a sideboard in a recess, and all we did for the Living Together set was take away the sideboard – and there was a window. You obviously have to change the furniture around, but that can be done terribly simply. The garden set is more difficult, but in some ways gardens are easier than interiors, because they can be suggested.
We did have to do quite a lot of alteration from the original production at Scarborough in-the-round, to the open and proscenium stages; quite a lot of re-angling was necessary. We did in fact lose one of the entrances in Table Manners: we made it into French windows, whereas in fact it should have been a door to the kitchen. Staging at Scarborough was very simple. We moved the window seat round. We needed a large dining table for Table Manners, which is the main obstacle. A lot of the furniture even got carried from room to room, particularly the chairs. For the gardens we got a bird bath and a big gorse bush, and used some rostra for a verandah – it was as simple as that, and it doesn’t need all the elaborations. I had a very small stage team, and the onus of playing in repertoire was really on them rather than on the actors, for whom it was stimulating.

A publicity image for the world premiere of The Norman Conquests at the Library Theatre, Scarborough, with Christopher Godwin as Norman (©Scarborough Theatre Trust)

When we first started rehearsing I wondered whether we might have problems of the actors being confused and forgetting which play they were in. We had the longest read-through of all time – some six hours – and I said we’d have to have some sort of a fine ( a round of drinks for everyone) for the first person who said a line from the wrong play, but it only happened once. The fact is that, as long as you come off in the right place, you can’t go wrong; and once you’re on, you’re on – and you’re all right.

What I found particularly nice also was getting that “club” feeling on the part of the audience in the theatre. Even when the plays went to the Globe Theatre, in London (which you can hardly call a “club” theatre!) there was that same “matey” feeling as a lot of the audience had seen each other before. They were getting out their diaries and saying, “Can we all manage the 25th? . . .”

I had set myself a series of principles – to work with a Scarborough audience. In the summer an audience is basically in the town for only one week. During that week it would be folly to expect them to come three times. They might – but it’s unlikely. So I had first of all to cater for persons who saw only two: if they were faced with the thought that if they’d seen only two they wouldn’t have enjoyed them, they wouldn’t have to come to any. I also had to face the fact that people would not necessarily be able to come in the “correct” order – so they had to be capable of being seen in any order. They had to be interchangeable, and also to stand on their own, and any combination had to be understandable, but at the same time I had to spice a little into each one so that people wanted to come back to see the others… In each play there’s a little reference to something happening offstage: “The disastrous thing in the garden” – and I hope people will want to find out what that was. It’s very annoying of course sitting next to someone who has already seen Round and Round the Garden, who goes “Ha, ha, ha” at this point, because one thinks, “What on earth is he laughing at?” The business with the waste-paper basket is, of course, the classic one.

The infamous dinner scene from Table Manners in the world premiere production at the Library Theatre, Scarborough (©Scarborough Theatre Trust)

The original order of playing in repertoire was: Table Manners, Living Together, Round and Round the Garden. In my book the only reason for Table Manners opening first is that technically it is slightly more difficult: it has more props, there’s all that food … it’s fairly simple food, but there’s quite a lot of business with knives and forks, etc., for Sarah to deal with, and it can be quite a little headache. A lot of people claim that Round and Round The Garden is the best to start with, because it is the frame to the whole picture – it has the very beginning and the very end. I’m very loath to label them in order 1, 2, 3, because I think it is possible to play them in any order; in fact, it’s interesting that a lot of people claim that the order they saw them in is the best – which rather proves my point. Naturally people do have their favourite of the three, but fortunately these seem to be fairly evenly divided.

When I first wrote them West-End managers were very wary of them, as a trio. What encouraged me was that I got separate offers for separate plays – which was better than everyone wanting to do the same play but not being interested in the other two.

To find out more about The Norman Conquests, visit Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website and the in-depth section dedicated to the trilogy here.

One comment

  1. The amdram group I worked with staged the full trilogy in rep. Twice! Both featured a marathon Sunday with all three plays plus a break for high tea!


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