by Carol Rocamora
Special times inspire special solutions. Leave it to playwright Alan Ayckbourn to come up with an ingenious dramatic form that brings theatre to life during these dark days.
Anno Domino, a captivating comedy about marriage, family, and the generational divide, is the 84th play written by this master satirist of British manners and morals. It’s a two-act, 105-minute recording, produced on-line by the Stephen Joseph Theatre (Scarborough, England) where Ayckbourn served as artistic director for decades. As such, it’s one of the rare, recent plays to have its world premiere on the internet (following Richard Nelson’s What Do We Need To Talk About) – a new phenomenon in these extraordinary times.
But what’s unique about Anno Domino is that all of its eight characters (ranging in age from eighteen to mid-seventies) are performed by Ayckbourn and his wife, Heather Stoney. What’s also striking is the play’s structure, consisting of reported action as it unfolds in a series of two character scenes.
We’re hooked from the top of Act One (called “Preparation: Saturday Night”), when Sam and Milly, a middle aged couple, are dressing for a family dinner at a local restaurant to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. Something’s up – and it’s big. Who’s going to spill the beans, they ask each other? You? No, you.
The so-called “beans,” as they’re subsequently reported by Sam’s parents Ben and Ella in the following scene, are the couple’s declaration to divorce after 25 years, because, as Ella quotes them, they’re “ sick to death of each other’s company, and there’s more to life than this.” Ben adds: “And neither of them even having an affair.”
This revelation becomes the catalyst for a cascade of confrontations between others at that fateful dinner. Ben and Ella, who have been married for umpteen years, find themselves shocked by the announcement from their model son Sam. “Splitting up just for the sake of it – it’s just not ENGLISH, is it?” declares Ella, the formidable family matriarch. “All we can do is grit our teeth and stagger on to the finish line,” grumbles husband Ben, resigned to his own marital purgatory.
But there’s a fallout effect. Ben wonders if it wouldn’t be nice to send Ella off alone on a cruise around the world – at least twice. Meanwhile Martha, their high-strung daughter, is having a meltdown. Her new husband Craig (a garage mechanic) seeks advice from Ella, who has nothing good to say about her difficult daughter. Martha doesn’t get much support from her inarticulate son Raymond (Raz) either, a model representative of Generation Z who communicates only through texts and whose spoken dialogue consists of grunts and gurgles.
The charm of the play lies in the performances of Ayckbourn and Stoney. In a brilliant stroke of virtuosic ventriloquism, Ayckbourn and Stoney craft eight distinct characters with their marvelous vocal and interpretative powers. Stoney’s Ella is a terrifying matriarch – outspoken, narrow-minded, judgmental – who shamelessly favors her son over her daughter. She’s a Lady Bracknell of the 21st century, wreaking havoc on her family – in the most “polite” English fashion, of course. Her one-liners remind one of Oscar Wilde’s. “I prefer the old-style male, insensitive and inconsiderate,” Ella tells her husband, “but at least I know where I am with you.”
Ayckbourn’s growling, long-suffering Ben is deeply affecting, and it’s marvelous to hear how this 81-year-old actor/writer (who hasn’t performed professionally for over 50 years) can segue from an octogenarian role to a teenage one. Yes, Raz does finally speak (through Ayckbourn), in one of the play’s delightful surprises. In the deeply moving penultimate scene with his distraught mother Martha, Raz offers her a gift to lift her spirits. It’s a bouquet of rare red and white roses – a variety called Anno Domino (the play’s title). “Voracious appetites, these roses have,” says Ben. So do marriage and family.
At the end of Act Two (called “Repercussions: Monday Morning”), Ben counsels his grandson Raz not to lose faith, despite the family carnage he’s witnessed. “Actually, there’s an awful lot of honest people in the world,” says Ben, “people who want you to reach out, who need your love. Don’t lose it, Raz – keep your trust in human nature.”
These are wise words, indeed, from a celebrated playwright (author of gems like Relatively Speaking, Absurd Person Singular, and The Norman Conquests) who has earned his place alongside Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, and other immortals of British comedy. Meanwhile, it’s a refreshing and rewarding experience to “hear” a play, for a change. Happy listening!
Anno Domino, by Alan Ayckbourn, a Stephen Joseph Theatre recording, available on- line now
through June 25 at sjt.uk.com