Anno Domino: History

Anno Domino was an unexpected addition to the Ayckbourn play canon - at least in the circumstances surrounding its first production. It is Alan Ayckbourn's 84th full-length play and it marked a number of unusual firsts for the playwright.

During 2020, the Covid-19 viral pandemic unexpectedly spread around the world with unprecedented consequences. One of these was the lockdown of every theatre in the UK, which saw the wholesale cancellation of performances and planned productions. This included the entire summer season of Alan Ayckbourn's home theatre, the
Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, including his two planned productions for the year; the world premiere of Truth Will Out and a revival of Just Between Ourselves.
Behind The Scenes: Reunited
This is far from the first time that Alan and Heather have acted together. When the Victoria Theatre was founded in Stoke-on-Trent by Alan's mentor Stephen Joseph, Alan and Heather were founding members of the company and acted opposite each other - including two Ayckbourn world premieres and a revival. They would also act together in Alan's final stage performance before retiring as an actor in 1964 when they appeared in Two For The Seesaw at Rotherham Civic Theatre.
Almost immediately after the lockdown, theatres began to adapt to the new 'normal' by looking to digital platforms. The SJT's Artistic Director Paul Robinson contacted Alan with the idea of asking creatives to write a short work for the venue. Not keen on this idea, Alan instead suggested on 31 March an exciting and unexpected possibility: the world premiere of an Ayckbourn play debuted as an audio stream on the SJT's website.

Anno Domino was a 'new' work - having never previously been performed or produced - like the majority of Alan Ayckbourn's plays, it was written well in advance of production; in this case about 18 months. Completed during late 2018, it is one of several plays Alan had written that were "waiting in the wings" for production (or, as Alan put it in one interview, "gazumped" by other plays). Alan is generally commissioned to write one new play for the Stephen Joseph Theatre each year, but has - on a number of occasions - written plays without a specific production slot when inspiration has struck. In the case of Anno Domino, Alan had already written a play during 2018 for the following summer (Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present) but then had the inspiration for Anno Domino, which he hoped he would find an opportunity to later stage.

At which point, it is worth emphasising that
Anno Domino was conceived and written as a full-length stage-play for a full company (it is intended for a cast of six). It is not a radio play nor originally intended to be an audio play, it just happened the play received its debut in that form. Alan hopes that when theatres around the world re-open, Anno Domino will be seen on stage as originally intended.

Undoubtedly excited by the prospect of the SJT still premiering new writing - particularly a new Ayckbourn play - despite the lockdown, Paul and Executive Director Caroline Routh approved the idea. Alan's suggestion was that, due to the lockdown, he and his wife, Heather Stoney, would play all the roles in the plays (six main roles with a couple of 'walk-on' parts). This is not as strange as it may sound as both Alan and Heather started their careers in theatre as professional actors - Alan began his career as a professional actor and Heather was a successful actor on radio, screen and stage.
Behind The Scenes: Voice of the Master…
Although, officially, Alan retired as an actor in 1964, visitors to his home theatre, the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, are likely to have heard the playwright in action. Uncredited for a number of years, Alan has provided a number of off-stage voices for his plays - perhaps most memorably, the foul-mouthed Arthur in Private Fears In Public Places (2004). As a result, audio recording his creations is not unfamiliar to the playwright. Also - largely uncredited - Alan creates the majority of the sound plots for his own productions, often in association with the SJT's Sound Designer Paul Stear.
The recording session took place at Alan's home during the lockdown and called on old skills from his days as a BBC Radio Drama Producer based in Leeds between 1965 and 1970 where he produced - at a conservative estimate - more than 250 radio dramas. From there, he edited the production and created a sound-plot; Alan has created the sound-plots for the vast majority of his world premiere productions stemming from his initial work as an Assistant Stage Manager in the theatre and, again, his work with the BBC.

The recording was finished and played for the first time on 2 May prior to Paul Stear, who was responsible for the final mix, working on the recording in preparation for its launch at 12pm on 25 May 2020 on the SJT's website. The recording was kept a secret outside the SJT until the official press announcement on 15 May 2020. Although initially presented by the SJT,
Anno Domino is a production of Alan's own company Haydonning Ltd.

To maximise the publicity, the Stephen Joseph Theatre's announcement glossed over the fact this was a play Alan had written two years previously, instead giving the impression it was a new work which Alan had written and recorded in the immediate aftermath of the lockdown.

Although adapted slightly as an audio play,
Anno Domino is nonetheless written as a full-length, full-cast staged work and - on stage - has a multi-location set. It centres on three couples within the same family: the parents, their son and daughter and their respective partners. Interestingly, the protagonist couple - Sam and Milly - are never seen on-stage and are written as off-stage voices; for the audio adaptation, this - of course - was not apparent.

The plot of the play looks at the break-up of a long-established marriage and the effect that has on the other relationships within the family and there truths it reveals. The debut production marked a couple of firsts for the playwright: his first play to debut as an audio play - and online stream - and the first time he has both directed and acted in one his own plays.

The announcement led to considerable - and unanticipated - interest from the press and media in Alan and the play and led to major features and interviews with Alan on North America's National Public Radio, various BBC national and regional programmes as well as newspapers such as The Observer and The Daily Telegraph. There was also interest around the world with the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal among the media which favourably reviewed the play

Throughout this, Alan raised the plight of theatre during the Coronavirus situation and its vulnerability as well as how streaming - be it audio or visual - may help keep theatre in the public eye during the crisis but, ultimately, it doesn't reflect the true, live experience of theatre.

The popularity of the play was a huge surprise to the SJT and during its five week run, more than 16,000 people listened to the podcast (equivalent to more than 40 full-houses at the SJT).

Such was its popularity that
Anno Domino's run - initially intended to be available for a month from noon on Monday 25 May to 25 June - was extended by a week until 2 July 2020. The run was not further extended nor the play made available subsequently as the intention was to replicate a theatre run; available for a limited period before ending.

From 15 September 2020 however, audiences were given another opportunity to hear the play when the UK International Radio Drama Festival streamed the original production for free from its

Although it debuted and found its initial audience as an audio play, hopefully the future of
Anno Domino will be on the stage where the playwright intended it to be.

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.