Theatregoers meet Absent Friends at Whatsonstage.com Q&A
The play is set at a dismal tea party attended by unhappily married couples hoping to console an old friend whose fiancée (who they've never met) has just passed away. The party progresses while the middle-aged friends reveal the misery and failure of their own relationships. As it turns out, the mourning guest of honour becomes the one responsible for comforting everyone else.
Following the performance, Whatsonstage.com deputy editor Theo Bosanquet was joined by cast members David Armand, Elizabeth Berrington, Katherine Parkinson, Reece Shearsmith, Kara Tointon and director Jermy Herrin for a lively Q&A, conducted on the smart living room set.
Herrin started us off by explaining why he chose the play. “It hadn’t been staged since 1975, and after looking at it with Sonia Friedman, we thought it was wonderful,” he said, adding that he responded to the funny and depressing qualities that (in a good way) "energised and inspired" him as a director.
The cast members were not familiar with the play and found it a challenging feat at first. Reece Shearsmith (Colin) and David Armand (John) admitted it was difficult to remember not to just go through the basic strokes of jokes when there is so much else going on. Each character committed to the stylistic difference of the play.
“Ayckbourn is extremely deep, which vindicated why it works as a play,” said Armand. “It has long pauses and modern humour.” Katherine Parkinson added that the decision by the play's original director to omit some of the play's notoriously excruciating pauses may have left the playwright unhappy. The entire cast agreed that, this time around, the play was done right in Ayckbourn’s eyes (because he told them so himself!).
One of Ayckbourn’s more mysterious characters, Evelyn, is played by Kara Tointon. Evelyn spends most of the play silently brooding in the corner while reading a magazine and responding to questions with crass one-word answers. Although the character had a limited amount of lines, Tointon worried about the role. “Evelyn doesn’t do much,” she said with a laugh. “It was a challenge. I struggled a lot because she’s meant to be the odd-one-out with this awful, dull personality.”
When questions were opened to the audience, one WOS theatregoer questioned the necessity of the play’s 1970s setting. Herrin, after discussing how they managed to create a stage that reflected real life as it was in that era, explained the specific observations that were more true to the 70s than today. Several issues in the play would have been addressed differently if the play were set in modern day, he added. Parkinson’s example for her character, who deals with an unfaithful and ungrateful husband, was the issue of women’s independence:
“It is evident that these women in the 1970s rely on men. The modern point of view would be that Diana should just leave her husband and make a living on her own. That resolution just wouldn’t fit the play.”
The male actors added that they needed to be constantly reminded in rehearsal to change their manners toward women. Ayckbourn gave instructions to be rude and dismissive when a woman entered during the men’s time catching up. Shearsmith said he almost felt uncomfortable, but the behaviour was standard for the 1970s.
Shearsmith also faced challenges with his character, whose fiancée Carol passed away. Offbeat and quirky Colin often fills the dismal silence of the play with a memory or a joke, while managing to annoy all of his “friends.” The actors joked about their conclusion in the rehearal room that, due to Colin's somewhat monotonous personality, Carol must have drowned herself.
“People have told me Colin seems like one of those guys who you meet and then forget", said Shearsmith. "It’s hard to play an ordinary man like that.”
The cast then discussed their admiration for Ayckbourn for producing such an accurate portrayal of gender politics and society in 1974.
“If there’s a positive lesson that came out of this play, it would be that feminism is good for relationships,” said Parkinson. “It proves how far marriage has come and that real love is possible because it’s a union of equals.”
- McKenzie Kramer
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