Snake In The Grass: History

In 1994, Alan Ayckbourn wrote his first supernatural play Haunting Julia, a piece for three male actors which focussed on the damage parents unwittingly do to their children and the nature of genius.

Subsequent to that, Alan was asked on a number of occasions whether he would ever consider writing a companion piece with an all female cast. The idea eventually triggered something for Alan as, in 2001, he began writing another supernatural play which moved some of
Haunting Julia's ideas into much darker territory. The play was originally conceived with the title Grass Widow - a relatively obscure term used to describe a woman who is either divorced or separated from her husband. The actual title came from a line in another Ayckbourn play, Joking Apart.

The connection with
Joking Apart is significant as when Alan began to write Snake In The Grass, he knew it would be playing in repertory with a revival of Joking Apart at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. Joking Apart has an unusual and challenging set based in a garden with a pagoda, part of a tennis court and a tree. Alan realised it made sense - both organisationally and financially - to write a play which met the same requirements allowing the plays to run in repertory with each other without major set changes.

Although the set is the same, Alan exploits it in completely different ways in both plays. In
Joking Apart, we see the garden at different times of the year during different celebrations. For Snake In The Grass, the action steadily progresses from day to night; the play starts in the sunlight and ends deep in the night. It was regarded as particularly challenging to light for its original production in-the-round and saw the first use of radio controlled lighting for the storm lanterns, which are both static and handled by the characters.

Just as
Haunting Julia remains Alan's own all male cast, so Snake In The Grass is his only all female cast. The plays are related in other ways too, notably a theme of fathers haunting their daughters. In Haunting Julia, it is Julia’s father Joe who is haunting his dead daughter Julia. In Snake In The Grass, the sisters Miriam and Annabel are haunted by their dead father, both in memory and possibly in a supernatural sense of the term.

Snake In The Grass is not as overtly supernatural as Haunting Julia, but it is a much darker play. It is essentially a thriller with black humour, but underneath this is a story about domestic violence with both sisters the victims of parental abuse - both mental and physical. Annabel has been physically abused by her husband and tormented as a girl by her father. The play implies Miriam has been sexually abused by her father and this is the probable cause of her irrational behaviour in the piece. Of course, these topics are not allowed to overwhelm the play and are subtly hinted at, offering a dark undercurrent to the play which becomes more obvious once the play is considered.

The play also throws up the question of victim’s guilt: Annabel articulates the beliefs that we only truly hurt the people we love and that, arguably, the reason for someone we love hurting us may be our own fault and that abusive love is better than no love. Contentious as these issues are, they illustrate Alan is still more than willing to tackle controversial and provocative contemporary issues four decades after he began writing. It also highlights Alan exploring a familiar theme, the lack of communication between people, but in a disturbing and some might say taboo manner.
Snake In The Grass is also undoubtedly inspired by Alan's love of film with a particular influence in this play being the 1955 French film, Les Diaboliques.

Although both
Snake In The Grass and Haunting Julia are both considered supernatural stories, at their hearts they are less about the immaterial, and more the material. They consider the often terrible things we do to those we love, be it by not being able to cope with or understanding our children in Haunting Julia or the altogether more disturbing concept of abusing them in Snake In The Grass.

Snake In The Grass opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in 2002 with a strong cast of Fiona Mollison, Susie Blake and Rachel Atkins. The play generally received positive reviews and ran in repertory with Alan’s classic comedy Joking Apart. Both plays then went on a successful regional tour. The play has since been published by Samuel French in 2004 and Faber in 2011 (both of which feature a printing error, the correction for which can be found on the Publication Corrections page) and released for both professional and amateur performance. The play has proved especially popular on the amateur circuit and in recent years has also proved to be popular internationally with productions of the play across the globe.

A chance to see
Snake In The Grass and Haunting Julia together was offered in summer 2008 for Alan Ayckbourn's final summer season as Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, when they were presented alongside a new supernatural drama Life & Beth. Alan Ayckbourn again directed the 2008 revival of the play which received strong reviews.

The professional London premiere of
Snake In The Grass did not take place until 14 February 2011, when it was staged at The Print Room with a well-received production directed by Lucy Bailey and starring Susan Wooldridge, Sarah Woodward and Mossie Smith.

Note: Note: Snake In The Grass is occasionally inaccurately referred to as part of the Things That Go Bump trilogy; Alan Ayckbourn has never referred to Haunting Julia, Snake In The Grass and Life & Beth as the Things That Go Bump trilogy and does not consider these three plays to be a trilogy. Contrary to what websites such as Wikipedia might say, there is no such thing as Alan Ayckbourn's Things That Go Bump trilogy.

Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.