Henceforward...: BackgroundIn 1986, Alan Ayckbourn took a two year sabbatical from his home theatre, the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, to join the National Theatre in London as a director of his own acting company. It was a significant move for him, but he allayed fears he was permanently leaving Scarborough by promising a new play for the full year he was away and a promise to return to Scarborough in 1988. The play he wrote was a definite departure from what had preceded it and for the first time Alan tackled the subject of what it is to be a creative artist.
Henceforward... was written while Alan was in London and is arguably his bleakest view of the human condition to that point and he had serious initial doubts about its content (see Behind The Scenes). The play was inspired by Alan's desire to write about the creative act and focuses on Jerome, a composer who literally draws his music from real life (what we now associate with 'sampling'). It was an exploration of the moral dilemma as to how far artists can and should use events from real life in their work and when faced with the chance to create their 'masterpiece', how much would an artist sacrifice? The decision to write the play was also motivated by advances in technology which he believed would allow a creative act to be realised on stage realistically via the then nascent technology of sampling.
The climax of Henceforward... sees Jerome creating his ‘Love’ suite, a piece of music which takes Jerome’s wife declaration of love and twists and bends it into what Jerome believes is the musical epitome of the emotion. The task to create this was handed to the theatre’s musical director Paul Todd. To physically achieve this, Todd were given permission to work on a state of the art Synclavier (basically a high-tech synthesiser) in London, with which he created a several minute composition entirely based around the manipulation of the sampled word 'love'. This at the time was the cutting edge of music technology with only four of the instruments in the UK, each valued at a quarter of a million pounds! Todd worked closely with the Synclavier engineers to create a composition unlike anything which had been heard in a play before.
To accommodate this technology in a plausible way and to introduce a malfunctioning android, Alan set the play in an unspecified dystopian near-future. This was the first time Alan had done this since writing the long since withdrawn play Standing Room Only in 1961 and gave him a latitude he would not have with a contemporary-set play; he knew that by removing the setting from the present day, he could make a bleaker and more incisive comment on today's society including a climax that implies all the characters have been killed or are likely to be killed.
Having just opened his new play, A Small Family Business, at the National Theatre, Alan returned to Scarborough to direct Henceforward... in June 1987. It would feature Barry McCarthy as Jerome as well as the final appearance of Robin Herford in an Ayckbourn play. Herford, who has appeared in the most Ayckbourn world premieres, was joint Artistic Director of the Scarborough venue at the time, running the theatre on a day-to-day basis while Alan was at the National Theatre. His swansong as Lupus was recorded on video in one day and he appears frequently, in various states of distress, on Jerome's video answer-machine.
Despite the bleakness of the content, the play was a big hit in Scarborough and the original production would go on tour the UK and Europe before being revived in Scarborough during the summer of 1988. Alan's regular London producer Michael Codron had also been taken with the play and optioned it for the West End before it had even opened in Scarborough. Prior to the transfer, Alan crossed the Atlantic to direct the play at the Alley Theatre, Houston, with George Segal as Jerome in October 1987. Until My Wonderful Day toured to New York in 2009 immediately after its world premiere, this was the quickest transfer of an Ayckbourn play to America.
The London transfer was scheduled for 1988 with Alan directing the play at the Vaudeville Theatre. The role of Jerome was given to Ian McKellen with Jane Asher as Corinna. Critically acclaimed and very popular, the play would go on to win the Evening Standard Award for best Comedy and was nominated for the Olivier for Best Comedy. However, it was not plain sailing as acclaimed as McKellen was for his performance, he was uncomfortable both with the role of Jerome (like most of Alan's plays, Henceforward… is written for an ensemble and Jerome arguably neither generates as much sympathy or laughs as the female characters) and Alan's style of directing. At the completion of his contract, the role was taken over by a significantly happier Martin Jarvis. Jane Asher would go on to work with Alan several times in the future in the West End. The play also notably marked the first West End appearance of Ian McKellen since his announcement he was gay earlier in the year and many of the reviews draw attention to his publicly coming out; still a relative rarity for such a high profile figure at the time.
Demand for the play was surprisingly high, certainly given its technical demands, and the play was picked up for productions throughout Europe as soon as the rights became available. A 1991 production in Los Angeles would win the Drama-Logue Critic Award. The play was published by Faber in 1988 with Samuel French producing an acting edition the following year. On 1 January 2011, the play was broadcast by LA Theater Works with an audio adaptation directed by Martin Jarvis and starring Jared Harris as Jerome and Anne Heche as Corinna. Martin Jarvis would also be involved in a separate radio production of the play for the BBC to mark its 25th anniversary in 2012. The play again starred Jared Harris as Jerome alongside Joanne Whalley as Corinna and was first broadcast on 10 June 2012.
In February 2015, the relevancy of Henceforward… almost 30 years on was demonstrated with an extraordinarily successful production at the Schauspielhaus, Hamburg in Germany. The acclaimed production which ran in repertory for more than a year demonstrated how many of the themes and ideas of the play are as relevant - if not more so - then they were in 1987. The success of the production was a major contributing factor in Alan Ayckbourn's decision to revive the play at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in 2016. In an vivid illustration of how far technology has moved on in three decades, the music for the 'Love' symphony originally produced by Paul Todd on the rare and expensive synclavier in 1987 was composed and created by Alan Ayckbourn on his Macbook for the 2016 revival!
Henceforward... has been less produced than many other such acclaimed Ayckbourn plays of the period largely on account of the technical challenges it presents as well as the demands on the three actors playing Jerome, Zoë and Corinna. Also perhaps like much science-fiction, while the plot and message are still more than relevant - most critics noted how prescient the play was and still relevant with Alan's 2016 revival - technology has caught up with much of the play as originally written; although Alan made small tweaks for the 2016 revival to allow for this. The idea of small mobile phones, personal global positioning systems, videophones and instant musical sampling are now commonplace - as arguably and depressingly is the concept of no-go areas in inner cities. Even robot nannies do not seem terribly far-fetched given the speed of progress in the field of robotics.
Yet this does not diminish the play, which stands as a significant and particularly rich Ayckbourn creation that has much to say about the nature of creativity, our relationship with technology, love and human relationships. It is also a very notable part of the Ayckbourn canon for several reasons: it is the first of his ‘autobiographical’ plays in which he explores artistic creativity; it is his first science-fiction play and will be followed increasingly by plays featuring sci-fi / fantasy elements as a means to further explore his themes; it is also possibly one of the finest examples of how Alan can write bleak drama that is rich with comedy - it is a prime example of his tragicomic writing.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.