Go behind the scenes on Alone Together as writer, Simon Williams, reveals his inspiration for the play, his dream casting of Martin Shaw and Jenny Seagrove, and his views on the future of new writing.
Can you tell us about your inspiration for the play?
Simon: I wanted to explore all the different kinds of love – love for children, love for the past, marital love and what bereavement does to love. That’s the key to it; what [bereavement] does to a married couple. It’s about love, generally.
There’s a secret here that needs to be preserved too, what can you say about that?
S: Well, it’s about how two people can stay married and grow further and further apart. I suppose it’s also about reconciliation. It’s about married people having secrets and it’s about people having private fantasies that come back to bite them.
Those private fantasies are very interesting and very real. What do you hope audiences will take away from the play?
S: The most encouraging and touching thing that’s happened so far to this play, is that Bill loved it from the start and promised that he would make it see the light of day. I appreciate that very much. I want people to have the kind of evening that will be a little bit of Ayckbourn, with pathos, something that everybody recognises, and with the kind of low-grade friction that can go on in a marriage. It’s also about the benefits of talking to strangers, whether on a park bench or online. I think people are very liberated by talking to strangers; officially, it’s called counselling, but talking to someone new is very beneficial. It soothes the soul.
There is certainly a dichotomy here. It’s also very much about the dangers of not talking. In that sense, is the play about the current mental health crisis that we are seeing play out?
S: We do live in an age where people are very aware of their mental state and that of one another. It Is never too late, by fluke or by design, for two people to start talking again. I love the resolution of the play and how Colin rescues his wife from her grief, and she releases the grief in him. Redemption is a key part of this, and I think certain people could benefit from seeing the play.
There’s also a sense that these conversations need to be ongoing for people to find relief and healing. What can you say about the play’s hopeful message?
S: In a slightly abstract way, the play is being written by Jonty as we go along. He steals and invents, and in the end, he stumbles upon the idea of letting a couple be reconciled. This, I think, gives it a momentum that carries it through. At the read-through, Martin and Jenny had me in floods. And Josh is exactly how I imagined. Josh’s is a difficult part, as he is very much the narrator and the centre of the story, but you have to ask yourself, what is he doing leading this life of a solitary writer and a fantasist? He’s going to be great. They all are.
What has it been like to be in the room with Martin and Jenny?
S: They are the dream casting. It’s quite extraordinary when you’ve lived with a play in your head, and you’ve played the dialogue so much to yourself – to hear two people take that off the page is an extraordinary experience. It’s often rather awful because it isn’t in sync with the melody in your head. But those two absolutely got it from day one. They got the heart of it. They understand how little they have to do, and that’s the art of great acting because it flatters the audience. I’m thinking of my mother-in-law now, Celia Johnson, in Brief Encounter. She doesn’t have to do much for you to know exactly what’s going on in her head. Jenny has that quality too, and Martin has that wonderful feeling of reduced emotion; it’s dry but it’s very powerful.
In the play, Jonty’s publisher bids him get his hands dirty, to really make his novel a success. How important do you think it is for writers to get their hands dirty?
S: It’s the same problem for an actor; quite often what’s wrong with a performance or a piece of writing is that the writer or actor is holding the story at arm’s length. You must get in there and become each character in turn. Each time I read the play, I’m a different person and I try to work my way through that role and what the arc of the character is. You really must get under the skin.
Can you talk about some playwrights who have inspired you in your lifetime?
S: I’m very much a fan of modern plays. I wish I’d been bought up in a more adventurous, alternative theatre, but all through my childhood my parents were writing – and my father acting – in drawing-room comedies. I’m a big fan of Terence Rattigan. I love Somerset Maugham; I did a play of his with Jenny for Bill some time ago. Noel Coward obviously. I’m wary of the classics of Shakespeare, Sheridan and Webster. I like modern drama. Tom Stoppard. David Hare is great especially when he’s got a Bee in his bonnet.
Your father performed in several of his own plays, and you have previously taken his example in doing the same. Do you enjoy bringing your own work to life on stage?
S: It’s very difficult acting in your own plays, I don’t know how Dad did it. On some occasions, other actors have said to me, “You were the writer tonight. You were saying the lines, but you were observing the play; you weren’t in it.” It’s a terrible danger, since the concentration an actor needs, especially over a long run, is huge.
Against the current trend in film and theatre of re-imagining heritage pieces, how important is it to you for UK theatre to continue to produce new plays?
S: I think there’s absolutely nothing more important than seeing a new play take flight. I love going to first nights. It’s an extraordinary thing and there can be miraculous moments. It’s still exciting to see heritage pieces reinvented; McKellen’s Hamlet last year was monumental because it was played by a man in his eighties. The theatre, for me, fails more often than it succeeds. If I enjoy two plays in ten, I’m on a roll. Usually, I see revivals and I’ll have a memory of someone else playing the part, or I’ll start analysing and seeing the joins. I love to see – as I hope I’ll see with my play – acting coming from the heart and not the brain. Sometimes I see people being technically wonderful, but they don’t quite get my heart. I think Martin and Jenny will.
Alone Together runs from Mon 7th – Sat 19th Aug
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