Haunting Julia: Articles by Alan Ayckbourn
Haunting Julia (Stephen Joseph Theatre 1999 tour programme note)
I set out to write a ghost story.
I suppose the next best thing, after making people laugh, is to make them jump out of their skins. Always more fun than straight drama where the most you can hope for in the way of a reaction is the soft sound of furrowing brows. Perhaps occasionally, because this is the undemonstrative country it is, you might be lucky enough to catch sight of someone polishing their glasses or blowing their nose - not because they have been reduced to tears, certainly not, but because cold air from the air conditioning has misted their lenses or given them a slight chill.
But after the cut and interactive thrust of live laughter or screams of terror, this is pretty tame stuff. I mean, what is the point of working in live theatre if you don't get equal enjoyment from the audience as well as the performers?
The problem with writing Haunting Julia was that although I set out to write a ghost story, as ever I got distracted on the way. That's always happening. I set out sometimes to write frivolous farces, only one of the characters becomes deeply depressed or threatens to take their own life, and that's that. I set out, on one occasion at least, to write a whodunit (It Could Be Any One of Us) although in the end the prospect of all those clues and motives and false motives and red herrings became altogether less interesting than the characters themselves.
So, although the ghost of Julia still haunts the play, it is really about children, their parents and what they occasionally do to each other and to innocent bystanders - all in the name of love. Not much change there.
Alan Ayckbourn's introduction to Alan Ayckbourn: Plays 3
Haunting Julia, was originally intended to open the smaller end-stage auditorium in our Scarborough company's soon-to-be-converted home, the former Odeon cinema in the town centre. As it happened, builders being builders and deadlines being deadlines, the Stephen Joseph Theatre with both its auditoria completed opened later rather than sooner, taking a further two years to finish. Rather than put the play to one side, I presented it instead in our then-current in-the-round auditorium in the former Westwood School.
It was my attempt at a ghost story. I had long felt that, along with making audiences laugh, it must be enormously satisfying to make them jump in their seats and occasionally even scream. A few years earlier, I had been inspired and encouraged at seeing in that same theatre the first production of Stephen Mallatratt's adaptation of Susan Hill's The Woman in Black. My associate director Robin Herford's production created near hysterical reactions.
One could hear the screams from the road. It was, of course, less to do with special effects or technical wizardry than with good acting and, above all, fine tense storytelling. A ghost story is, after all, greatly akin to farce. Both require the onlooker to suspend their-belief; to begin to believe first the unlikely and ultimately the incredible.
Haunting Julia, therefore, began as a simple exercise in thrills and shocks. Could I make an audience jump? Would I be able to take them on my own journey of suspenseful disbelief? I confess I started planning the play with full confidence that I could achieve this. But then it's always easier to be certain of yourself before you start writing anything down.
As usually happens, as I started my early plotting, other elements of my rudimentary plot started to intrigue me. I had settled on Joe as my principle character; a man obsessed by the tragic, mysterious death of his brilliant young daughter. I refer to him as my principal character but Joe, it soon became clear, was not to be the central one. That undoubtedly, was going to be Julia herself. Never seen and only heard, using words spoken by an uncredited actor, ones she probably never spoke in life, nonetheless from the very start her spirit hovered over everything, literally haunting the lives of the three onstage male characters.
It's a play about coming to terms with sudden loss. Of the difficulty of truly understanding human genius. Of living with an abnormal talent. Of the effect that a suicide must have on those left behind. Of the guilt and the anger and the sorrow it can create in its wake. And, yes, it's still a ghost story. And I must confess to a great thrill when, on the opening night, as the ghostly Julia hammered suddenly and violently on the door, the whole audience did rise several inches off their seats in shock. And, yes, someone actually screamed.
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.