Life & Beth: Interviews With The CastThe interviews on this page were conducted by Simon Murgatroyd with two of the original cast members from the world premiere production of Life & Beth at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in 2008. Richard Stacey and Ruth Gibson offer their views on their characters, Martin and Ella, and working with Alan Ayckbourn.
Interview With Richard Stacey (Martin)Simon Murgatroyd: How do you find working with Alan Ayckbourn, it seems his rehearsals are different to the norm.
Richard Stacey: He has such a clear idea of the process from beginning to end and what he wants. You know you’re in very good hands and he’s very gentle and just says: “Off you go, have a go”. You can often spend a lot of time thrashing around early on with some directors and in the end it might produce good things, but you go off on all sorts of different directions in the meantime. With Alan, you arrive at the destination very early so you’re rehearsing the details and finding out about the relationships of the characters very quickly.
How have you found the part of Martin in Life And Beth?
As an actor, one wants to be liked and you don’t want your character to be hated. Playing Martin, what we’re realising more and more is that he’s hopeless and that he’s trying desperately to live up to the legend that is his father. He’s got his father Gordon on this pedestal.
It’s very symptomatic of Alan’s work of having people having ideals - or heroes - but then they have feet of clay. Martin’s a real enthusiast but is useless and can’t do anything. He’s probably good at some things, but they’re not the things he thinks he needs to be good at. He can’t do relationships - he finds himself with a girl who is way out of his league and then just watches it turn to dust in his hands. I think he just doesn’t get it; he doesn’t have moments of realisation, which leads to his frustration and taking things out on people. He’s not self-aware.
Do you think there’s any hope for Martin?
My hope is at the end of the play, he’s dropped Ella off and that he’ll be able to sit down with his mum and properly talk about things and it might happen more often. That there will be some hope for him. In a way, I think Gordon probably was a great Dad; they will have made things together and Gordon will have given proper time and attention to Martin. I know people who are very loved, but it’s that thing that the love is being to them or at them. In Life & Beth, Connie is the one for whom there is little hope. She doesn’t recognise the patterns in her life. It’s, I suppose, classic Alan territory - families in duress - that he does so well. I think the plays can be heart-breaking because you recognise it either in yourself or people you know or situations which you’ve been in and I think that’s what the audience like.
Interview with Ruth Gibson (Ella)Simon Murgatroyd: This season marks the first time, you’ve worked with Alan Ayckbourn, how have you found it?
Ruth Gibson: Snake In The Grass this season was the first time I worked with Alan and it is the happiest rehearsal process I have ever had. You have complete confidence in him because he has written the play and because of who he is.
How did you find the rehearsal process?
The thing I’ve found the most different about Alan’s technique is that he just kinds of lets you get on with it. He’s very clever in his casting and he usually has actors who have worked with him before or he’s seen us in other things. I think he has confidence in his actors and if you’re going in a direction he doesn’t want you to go in, he will pull you back. If not, he’s very happy for you to find your way, which is great as an actor because you feel happy and you feel comfortable. He’s quite subtle and makes you happy and confident and he’s very good at always making it feel like an ensemble piece. You never get the feeling: “Oh, that’s an important character and I’m only support.” With Alan, no matter how much you’re on stage or how many lines you have – or don’t have in my case in Life & Beth! – you know that your character would not be in that play unless they have to be in that play. The way Alan writes and directs you know that your character is just as important and integral to that story as anyone else.
Your character, Ella, is - to all intents and purposes - silent throughout the entire play. Was that difficult for you?
It is daunting; as an actor you read the script and you find in your lines, the little clues that you build your character from. Alan helped me by telling the story of who this character was actually based on; a real person! The person I am, he saw in his life. Every single character is fully fleshed out and, in a way, not saying anything says more about Ella than her saying something. Alan says that when he originally wrote it, I did have lines but then he took them out as he thought it’d be funnier if I just said nothing at all. He’s done all the work for me as Ella is talked about more than any other character in the play. If you trust the script, it will happen for you - and I haven’t to learn any lines!
The key to playing any of Alan’s characters is to play the truth of them, I imagine that’s even more difficult when you’re silent and have to create a character through actions alone.
Yesterday, he said just do less. As an actress, that’s quite frightening as you think I’m being boring and need to do something. He said just do nothing and then pick your moments when you’re going to, because as you’re saying nothing, the moments when you do react are bigger.
What are your thoughts on the character of Ella and how she fits into the play?
I think Alan writes relationships so well, he’s a brilliant judge of character. He has such great judgment of character and showing how people feel they ought to be and the front they put on. What’s interesting about Ella as a character is she’s not bought into that. In the first five minutes, the fact that Ella says nothing, says more about Martin and their relationship and his entire family – the way the rest of the family reacts to this strange woman – than you can say in a monologue. The subtext is so strong.
Also, you immediately see a character on stage that says nothing and you think ‘Oh she’s a little mouse’, but she’s the absolute opposite of it. It’s her strength. There’s similarities between Beth and Ella, although they deal with situations in entirely the opposite way.
And then there’s Martin and this totally dysfunctional relationship with Ella. Did you talk about their history?
We’ve done the back-story. We think Ella was probably in a relationship with the chef who bunked off with the money and Martin has probably visited the restaurant a few times. So we think he probably stalked her and persuaded her to go out with him! He then said my Dad’s died, so she has to go out with him and she’s now accidentally found herself in this relationship and she’s now like: ‘I just don’t want to be here. What am I doing?’ He tries so hard and it just doesn’t work. She’s got to that stage where she can’t be bothered anymore. She can’t even get through Christmas Day. I think she’s thought she can do Christmas day and then dump him after that, but they don’t even get that far!
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce these interviews without the permission of the copyright holder.