An Interview with Robert Powell
Prior to his appearance at Leeds Grand as Philip in Alan Ayckbourn’s ‘Relatively Speaking’, we speak to actor Robert Powell about the role and his life in theatre.
How would you sum up your character in Relatively Speaking?
He’s married to Sheila [Liza Goddard] but spends most of his week in London and goes home for long weekends. He’s a businessman who travels a lot and he’s having an affair – or he was. The play is all about the complications that ensue when things get found out. It’s the usual story of farce – it’s about people misunderstanding who other people are. The inter-relationship between all four characters in the play is chaotic.
What do you most relish about playing him?
It’s funny. Simple as that really. It’s always nice to have a part that’s funny. The last thing I did there weren’t many jokes in it so it’s quite nice to get back to straight comedy.
Can you relate to the character in any way?
No, not really. Acting doesn’t work like that. Everything relates to you because it’s you. Everything you play is you turned through a few degrees so it’s always going to be you and you use bits of yourself all the time. That’s how acting works, so he would find things relating to me rather than the other way around. The very fact he’s me means I relate to him because he’s my version of the character, who has been played many times before by other actors.
You and Liza Goddard have worked together many times. What do you most enjoy about that collaboration?
We’ve known each other a long time and we get on very well. That always helps. And we have similar interests so if you’re going to tour with somebody it’s always nice to do so with somebody you can go to museums with – someone who enjoys doing that, going to museums and art galleries. Otherwise touring can be a very lonely way to earn a living.
The play was Alan Ayckbourn’s first national hit in 1967. Can you recall when you first encountered it?
I saw it with Michael Hordern and that first cast but I can’t remember if I saw it in the theatre – which is quite possible because Alan was a pretty close friend and has been for a long time – or when it was televised. I’d like to think I saw the stage version and I think I probably did.
Why do you think it has endured for so long?
Because it’s about truth. All Alan’s plays are about relationships and he doesn’t cheat, so everybody recognises the characters in them because we all know one of them or we are one of them. They’re totally recognisable as being real people but this is hardly surprising because certainly in the early days Alan used to put all his friends in his plays. He didn’t call them by their names but he used the experiences of his close mates, quit mercilessly as many writers do. His friends were his source material.
You first worked with Alan on stage in The Sparrow in 1967. How was that experience?
As I say we knew each other anyway by that time because I’d joined the rep in Stoke-on-Trent in 1964, which was about two years after Alan had left but there were still huge connections between Stoke and Alan and the theatre in the round there and myself. Also I did a lot of radio for Alan in Leeds after he’d left Stoke, so we knew each other quite well.
It will be in my autobiography – although I notice that it’s not in his – that there are around 80 Ayckbourn plays and The Sparrow, which is the one I did when it premiered in Scarborough in 1967, is the only one that has never been performed anywhere else in the universe. I don’t know what it was that we did to it but it didn’t get taken up by anyone else or taken into the West End, which by that time nearly all of Alan’s plays were. It was abandoned.
What do you most enjoy about working with Alan?
He’s just fun to be with. I remember in our spare time in Scarborough in the 1960s he and I used to go down to the arcades on the front and play pinball. We were both addicted to games and I seem to recall we won some cigarettes once.
What do you feel sets him apart as a playwright?
I think there are two elements. He writes terribly well for women, which is extraordinary. There are not many male playwrights who are as adept as he is at writing roles for women. At the risk of getting contradicted I think he writes better for women than he does for men. And the second thing is that his plays are very truthful. They don’t cheat. They’re based in truth and it’s a five-letter word that, particularly because of his background in theatre in the round and mine too because that’s where I started, is underlined and in bold and italics.
It’s the absolute essence of all theatre, particularly if you’re working in such close proximity when you’re doing theatre in the round. If it isn’t truthful it doesn’t work, it’s as simple as that – and it’s amazing how many playwrights, famous and not so famous, are very clever and you can admire their work but they’re not honest, they’re not truthful. I think that’s what separates Alan from many others. His work is always truthful.
How tricky is it to get farce right on stage?
It’s very difficult to learn farces, that’s for sure. They’re complex and there’s an awful lot of dialogue where people only use one or two words so there’s a lot of ‘I see’, ‘Yes’, ‘Is it?’ It’s about trying to remember all that and where it comes. With Ayckbourn it’s not about learning lines, it’s about learning your cues.
Have you made any on-stage gaffes during your career?
Oh God, hundreds. I famously left out a scene when I was doing Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell. It was our second week and it’s a show where Jeffrey never leaves the stage. But there are four actors who play all the other tiny parts – 15 parts each. Coming on to bolster a scene and giving one line here and one line there as he talks to the audience remembering his life. He conjures somebody up and that person will then be there, deliver his bit, then go off again.
Although on stage what you see is one set and one actor, backstage it’s like ducks with a huge amount of scurrying going on as everybody gets changed for the next bit. So they’d all got changed for the next bit when I left out a scene so apparently there was a massive tearing around trying to get out of the stuff they’d gotten into and to get ready for the scene that was coming up far sooner than they’d anticipated.
Do you have any pre- or post- show routines?
Pre-show it’s dietary more than anything else. Making sure that without any actual volume in the food there’s plenty of protein there for energy. And post-show? That’s dead simple: It’s a beer.