Alan Ayckbourn: Actor


The Strong Are Lonely (1956)

Play: The Strong Are Lonely
Author:
Fritz Hochwaelder
Opening Night:
19 August 1956 (TBC)
Venue:
Lauriston Hall, Edinburgh Festival
Staging:
End-stage

Director:
Donald Wolfit

Character
Alfonzo Fernandez
Soldier

Other cast details are not known

Actor
Donald Wolfit
Alan Ayckbourn
(credited as Walter Plinge)

Quotes & Notes

Alan Ayckbourn's first professional stage role was as a soldier in Donald Wolfit's production of The Strong Are Lonely at the Edinburgh Festival in 1956. Alan joined the company literally days after leaving school at Haileybury and stayed with the company for three weeks; the Festival ran from 19 August - 8 September in 1956 which implies Alan was with the company for the Festival's entire duration.

Alan was apparently credited - according to the recollections of Donal Wolfit's dresser Roanld Harwood - as Walter Plinge in the programme. Traditionally this named was used when someone was either doubling up on roles or did not want their real name to be used.

"As I was leaving [Haileybury], I went to Edgar Matthews, the man who'd sent me off on tour, and said, 'I want to go into the theatre. Can you help me?' And he said, 'I have two contacts. One is Donald Wolfit; the other is an old boy of the school, Robert Flemyng. I'll give you letters of introduction to both. I don't know: I can do no more.' As it happened, Donald Wolfit was on the very point — I think the following Monday (I was leaving on a Friday) — of starting a revival of
The Strong Are Lonely, a play he'd successfully had in London, I think, with Ernest Milton. He was reviving it with a slightly less starry cast and was looking for someone to play a sentry, an acting ASM, really. Edgar had assured him, I think, on the phone, that I had been in the school cadet force and could stand at attention without fainting for forty-five minutes. So, in the most extraordinary way I joined his company and was rehearsing at the YMCA in Tottenham Court Road, with one or two lads straight out of drama school saying, 'Where did you train?' I said, 'Train?' I was tremendously green. I sat around the rehearsal room and did what I was told and gawped at all these - it was an all-male cast - these wonderful old actors....
"He [Donald Wolfit] seemed very big. I don't think he could have been that tall, but he seemed enormous to me, in all directions. He used to wear cloaks and big black hats, and his hair was always brushed back, and there were his wonderful saturnine eyebrows, and this makeup line that was always in his hair, because it had been there since 1910. And everyone stood back and stood up when he came in, and he swept through. And his performances were majestic and huge, and they were all about acting, they weren't about anything to do with the character. By modern standards, it'd be quite a shock, I'm sure.
"I watched him very closely, because I was on stage. He'd fling himself on his knees at the end of the second act, after being excommunicated by the Pope's emissary. He began to kneel and say the Lord's Prayer, with tears rolling down his face - and he did genuinely move the audience. But as the curtain sank, he used to slowly turn his head upstage and just continue the prayer, but it became a vicious attack on the audience. 'Coughing bastards!' he'd say. And I was so shocked. I wasn't shocked by the blasphemy, I was shocked by the fact that a man could come out of such a moving moment with such apparent ease. And he could do that all the time. He'd fling lines upstage at you: 'Stand up!' he'd say, and carry on performing....
"I think I learned that theatre is show business. Some of the stuff he portrayed I didn't admire. But, eventually, it's what the audience wants. He played for them. I think some would say he played to them to the exclusion of everybody else. The fact is that he hated them at the same time - a lot of artists have a love-hate relationship with their audience. But there was no doubt you'd been to the theatre when you went to see Wolfit....
"I was three weeks at the Edinburgh Festival. But it was like three years simply because it was a holiday job and it did give me three weeks at the Festival. And I saw so much else, because all these wonderful old actors that he [Wolfit] employed were also past masters at getting into every show in the business without paying. So I saw all the operas and the ballets and the Piccolo Theatre of Milan - it was a very rich festival that year - not to mention all the orchestral stuff and the tattoo."
('Conversations With Ayckbourn', 1981)

Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn

My First Job (by Alan Ayckbourn)
I left school on a Friday and landed a job the following Monday - £3 a week as an ASM with Sir Donald Wolfit in Edinburgh. The main reason he employed me was that I'd been in the School Cadet Corps and could endure long periods on my feet without fainting. Part of the job, you see, entailed playing a silent Spanish soldier and the last guy had kept keeling over. So I'd stand on-stage for an hour watching the great man in action while he simultaneously addressed the audience and flung obscene comments about them upstage. The nicest thing I ever heard him say was 'slow-witted fools'; the rest is unprintable.
That was my brutal initiation into the theatre. And absolutely marvellous it was too. No matter if I was only earning £3 a week. I was like someone in love. If I'd had any doubts about making the theatre my career, being in Edinburgh at festival time with a man like Wolfit would have totally dispelled them. One minute there'd been this strict school timetable; the next I was out in the big wide world. I don't think I ate for days because no one told me to take a lunch break.
Most of the time, though, I spent polishing the furniture. He gave me lots of good advice like, 'Drink the Guinness before the show and the gin afterwards'. All sheer magic to me, the closest thing to working with Irving.
I must say though that I thought all theatre must be like that. When I went from there to Worthing and Leatherhead and Oxford and, finally, Scarborough, I really got quite a shock to discover that some people in it were normal after all. But as a first job, it really fired and inspired me. At that stage, I thought I was going to be an actor. Writing was just a means of propagating myself - coming up with dishy parts for myself to star in. Then it was time to get out - I was spoiling the plays."

This article is copyright of Alan Ayckbourn and should not be reprinted without permission of the copyright holder.

All research for this page by Simon Murgatroyd.