Future Comedy

On 4 June 1998, Alan Ayckbourn’s play Comic Potential premiered at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. It is one of his most acclaimed plays of the period and featured an extraordinary central performance by Janie Dee in the world premiere at Scarborough, the New York premiere and the West End premiere – for which she won the Olivier, Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle Award for Best Actress.

To mark the anniversary of the play, we have an interview with Alan Ayckbourn about the play by his Archivist Simon Murgatroyd.

Future Comedy by Simon Murgatroyd

Jacie in Comic Potential continues your trend, first started in Henceforward… of having androids as central characters. To quote the movie Blade Runner, your robots seem ‘more human than human’ and are often the most sympathetic, even human, characters in these plays. 

Janie Dee as Jacie in the world premiere of Comic Potential
(© Tony Bartholomew / www.bartpics.co.uk)

Well, yes. Certainly my robots are quite vulnerable; they’re like children. Although Nan in Henceforward… is sort of scary. She seems quite a frightening animal, but she’s not dangerous, she’s just protective. She’s just frightens Zoë a bit. I think the idea is she’s funny rather than frightening. A bit of Psycho there. But that’s fun.

I guess they are sympathetic characters. It’s sort of inevitable, I mean all these humans have other agendas, whereas the robots have none. Jacie’s journey is from child to woman. I said once in rehearsal for Comic Potential, that’s it’s a sly short history of women from the 1900s to 2000. It’s sort of like the journey they’ve made or the average woman has made. For Jacie, it’s all a bit accelerated. One minute, here she is, a sort of puppet, then she’s being expected to make her own decisions to very finally saying: “Nobody’s programming me, I don’t know what I’m doing.” Like a child she’s both wanting to grow up while not knowing how to. She has the phenomenal brain of a robot and I put the reading scene in to say, if she can learn to read in 10 minutes, think of what else she’s going to do. The warning that some people seem to get is very clearly is they won’t stop there. 

I was also saying there is a downside to the fact we are very used to have been the ruling species for living memory, being top dog. What happens when you face the platform and there’s a truly civilised being there? We are no longer top dog; we’re second dog. How will we adjust? Will we attack them furiously and they’ll wipe us out, as they’ll be that much more superior. Or will we agree to learn from them. We are going to eventually have sentient machines, which we will have great trouble separating from us. They will be able to reason, argue and not forget and in many instances they will be a superior being.

With Comic Potential I raised the two areas where I think we surpass machines. Our ability to fall in love, which is something completely human – it doesn’t happen to dogs and cats! It’s something we’ve never been able to explain. Alongside that comes humour and both, I would contend, are illogical processes. They’re flaws. The only reason Jacie can do these things is she’s faulty and it may be what is built into us is a built-in flaw. Also with the loving robot comes the hating robot and perhaps this will happen despite whatever safeguards we build into them. It’s going to be a very interesting 21st century! There’s a third element too. It is to do with humour and love and is creativity. This may well be something Jacie will discover from feeling the first highs of love and thus discovering early humour and being alarmed by her reactions. She will be creating rather than making.

It’s intriguing you believe humour is an illogical process.

It’s interesting that humour in a sense, at least to me, is a chink in the human brain. The great ‘Comic’ ideas are often quite incongruous things. I began to muse if a computer did that, it would be designated as faulty. If a Computer came up with a joke, it would be seen as a fault. So is it humour that makes us human?

Hence the near-future setting….

I’m a bit of a science-fiction freak, but I have to be a little careful of that as the audience comes out with a rash when you mention sci-fi! I love using it as a metaphorical medium for the present. The best speculative fiction writers write about what we might become and what we are today. It also gives me the chance to write about big things for me.

Nicholas Haverson & Janie Dee in the world premiere of Comic Potential
(© Tony Bartholomew / www.bartpics.co.uk)

The play has a lot of fun at the expense of television and script-writing – which has become an autonomous, algorithm generated process in this future. Is that something you fear might happen?

Not only script writing. Acting as well. But that’s television. Theatre will continue because, along with opera and ballet, it is the one dramatic medium which remains live. The electronic newcomers, Radio, TV, DVD, CGI [computer generated images[, etc. all strive for this liveness by giving their audiences the sensation of choice. But even in games where options appear to be infinite, someone – months, even years, before has already previously anticipated any decision its audience will make. Only in theatre with its real time and its live audience and live actors does anything even remotely unique occur. And even then that’s not always perceptible from night to night!

You can find out more about the play Comic Potential at Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website here.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission. All images copyright of respective named copyright holder.

One comment

  1. Thanks for the memory! A wonderful play and really interesting to read his comments. Westworld doesn’t do it with quite the same humanity! Particularly poignant for me as he directed Figuring Things by my husband, Mike Fosbrook, as one of the lunchtime plays that season, also with Janie Dee. Mike was already ill with cancer and having his play put on at the SJT was a huge boost. He died in 2002 but I never miss ‘the new Ayckbourn’ at my nearest venue, the New Vic in Newcastle under Lyme. Thanks for this unexpected bright spot in my day!


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