Haunting Julia: Interview With Alan Ayckbourn

The following interview is an extract from a larger interview with Alan Ayckbourn about his supernatural plays. It was conducted by Simon Murgatroyd in 2008 and the transcript for the full interview can be found here.

Simon Murgatroyd: I’ve always felt you’ve had a soft spot for Haunting Julia, what are your thoughts on the play?
Alan Ayckbourn:
It started off as a scare-‘em play but it is also about things I find very interesting: quite dark themes like the effect suicide has on the people they leave behind and how parents affect their children.
No matter how remotely connected you are to a suicide, I think you always bring it back to yourself: you wonder what you could have done, which is probably nothing at all. For Julia’s father and mother, there will always be the question: “Is there something different we could have done that would have made a difference?” I suspect the play also hints that Joe and Dolly accelerated an already existing condition.
Julia is undoubtedly a genius and the play also asks whether that sort of behaviour goes hand in hand with genius? Is genius actually a form of personality instability? I suspect that, although a lot of them stop short of suicide - or there’d be millions of dead genii lying all over the place!
Finally, it’s about the supernatural. Of all three plays this season [
Haunting Julia, Snake In The Grass and Life & Beth], it’s undoubtedly the supernatural one. This element is much stronger here as, in a sense, we are taking part in a séance. We trying to triangulate an image of the girl with these three actors on stage; trying to create her first by account and then by actual concentration. I’ve said to the actors at previous productions, the greatest achievement would be for the audience to almost think they see her. Which is why there is no interval: there’s no way you can take 15 minutes from a séance to have a drink and come back and say: “Where were we? Was anybody there?”
Whether they manage to bring her back or not, I suspect, is left a little bit in the air. Do we hear Julia through Joe, because he is so obsessed and close to her?
It’s a dark journey but not without its humour. I tried to put in a sceptic, Andy the boyfriend doesn’t believe in all this rubbish and indeed there’s this wonderful line in the movie The Haunting, where the chief spook-hunter says “I hope to goodness you never do see anything, Jack, or the hinges of that closed door of a mind of yours will break open.” And Andy is probably worse affected by what happens than the others because he’s shut the door in his mind very firmly and the other two at least have left enough leeway that what’s happening is possible. Personally if I saw a ghost it’s probably finish me off altogether! I hope I’ve enough leeway in my mind that if I did see one it wouldn’t cause a complete turning around of my faith and confidence.

You’ve always been fascinated by off-stage characters; arguably Julia is a very strong example of this.
Julia’s a strong, strong personality. She’s one of those very sure people - or those apparently sure people - who suddenly lose all confidence.

And her off-stage presence is also heightened by her music, which is again largely unheard and left to our imaginations.
There was a deliberate choice of music being her discipline. Because musicians, by natural rote, by the age of five can be composing some pretty passable music. Music is a gift that comes very early and therefore it’s akin to mathematics. Music as a discipline is quite mathematical in theory. Julia lives in this completely twilight world where the rules of music are very much laid down and she explores and cuts her own path through these laws. Her emotional life is therefore severely truncated. She is a complete sociopath, unable to conduct a social relationship, let alone a sexual relationship. Her life is completely governed by her gifts, which is a baffling state not only for her but especially for her parents, particularly a simple, self-made man like Joe living in a finite life.
Interestingly the women - all off-stage - are all quite strong. Dolly, Joe’s wife, is the one who, one suspects, blames Joe entirely for the death of Julia; which is probably one of the driving factors of Joe. In a lighter vein, we hear about Pam, the airline traffic control wife of Andy, who seems to go for dominant women. So there’s very strong women hovering in the background of the play.

Haunting Julia was initially scheduled to open the end-stage McCarthy auditorium at the new Stephen Joseph Theatre, but instead was staged in the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round. What happened there?
I remember originally thinking that I would write something for the McCarthy. I think there were two things changed: because the McCarthy was delayed and I had also a time-span in my mind and Julia was very clear in my head and I didn’t want to delay writing it. I hate the idea of sitting on a play, deliberately not giving birth to it as it was already three dimensional in my head. And therefore I did do it in Westwood [the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round] in the round.
I think it’s interesting: I thought, it’s in the round but isn’t - more three-sided; so then I put the record straight by doing it again in the McCarthy [in 1999] where it was written for, where I think it worked slightly better. But then with the schema for 2008 upon me, I thought: “Oh damn, I’ve got an end-stage show and two round plays.” I thought we can probably do
Haunting Julia in the round, and then I thought laterally and about coming up into the room through the floor; through a trapdoor. We’ve all seen student digs. So it occurred to me it might be quite scary if Julia was below and of course the floor is the focal point of the round - and I hope this will work - so we’re all focused on the floor and then this trap flies open….

You mentioned the original production: the staging did pose problems as a substantial part of the audience couldn’t see the door as it was in a vom. Did you think it was a problem?
Yes, but it did benefit from - no reflection on the second one - having Ian Hogg as Joe, who was extraordinary.

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