Intimate Exchanges: Articles

This section features articles by Alan Ayckbourn and other authors. Click on the links in the right-hand column below to go to the relevant interview.

This article by Tim Luscombe was written for the souvenir programme for the 2006 revival of Intimate Exchanges at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. Tim took over directing the first tranche of plays at short notice after Alan suffered a stroke just weeks before rehearsals for the production were due to start.

Theatrical Chaos

In 1984 Alan Ayckbourn wrote:

"It is not a show that it is necessary - or perhaps even desirable - to see all of. It's a thing that we hope people will come to see normally and see once, and then, that curiosity will bring them back. If you get absolutely hooked on it, you can go 16 times, but I think a normal, average, healthy person with all his right senses would probably say that four times was a jolly good average and eight was fairly fanatical."

This collector's book is for the fairly fanatical. And I encourage you to become fairly fanatical about
Intimate Exchanges!

This is the first time since the London transfer of the original Scarborough production, twenty-three years ago, that
Intimate Exchanges will be produced in full. Six of the eight plays are being rehearsed and opened this season, the other two next year. The same two actors will have sixteen hours of dialogue in their heads by the end of the year and be able to perform eight different plays at the drop of a hat! And they will do so, in the weeks in which there is a plan for you to be able to see all eight plays (with their sixteen variant endings) within a fortnight!

Moreover, the dialogue the two actors are learning is not dialogue in which they have pages 'off', like any normal play - where another set of characters takes over and our actors can have a breather in the background. They never stop. And when they do go 'off' it's to do a madly fast quick-change and to come back 'on' again as someone else, a bit breathless and hopefully remembering which scene they're entering.

To me,
Intimate Exchanges is a fabulous comic masterpiece, an enormous technically virtuosic engine, a perfect response to writing for a theatre in a seaside town in which the same audience might want to watch two or three (or eight in this case) different plays in the same week.

It is about chance, destiny and, in a theatrical rendering of the Chaos Theory, the immense power that our tiniest decisions sometimes have. It is about the responsibility we come to accept, or resist accepting, for what we do (in the Churchyard scenes primarily). And it is about how sometimes the biggest decisions we make in our lives (or indecisions in the case of the character of Miles) are taken through a murk of ill-informed ignorance.

In terms of his other plays,
Intimate Exchanges comes from the middle of about a decade in which Alan spun tales using the ideas of variation and chance. To give 'live' theatre an even livelier edge in 1979 he wrote Sisterly Feelings in which the four scenes have alternate middle scenes, the first branching-off point being decided by the flip of a coin, the second decision by the actors. In 1983 in his murder mystery It Could Be Any One Of Us, the murderer is chosen in the opening scene during a game of cards between three of the protagonists. The character who is dealt a specific card is the night's murderer, leading to live alterations in the dialogue through the play! And in Mr A's Amazing Maze Plays of 1988 the heroine's path through the second act is entirely determined by the audience.

Along with the philosophical implications that the plays of
Intimate Exchanges suggest, Alan continues to address and explore in them the recurring themes for which he is celebrated and which draw audiences to see his work again and again.

In a world in which men have all the power, through his portrayal of impossible men and put-upon women Alan always seems to be siding with the women. Whether this is an example of the British love of the underdog, or a genuine attempt to redress the balance I don't know. But it is not insignificant that a woman makes the first decision in
Intimate Exchanges, from which all the others spring.

But Alan is as interested in the politics of gender as he is in those of control and power. In
Intimate Exchanges it is amazing to me to see him create the sharpest comedy and tragedy out of the dynamics of an individual attempting to exert his or her will on another (Lionel and Joe over Sylvie, Celia over Toby, Rowena over her children etc).

The themes of control and manipulation also have a variation in an external, non-human guise. Witness the power of alcohol in Toby and Celia's lives. Again, that first decision, of Celia's to have a cigarette or not, is a pirouette around a craving for a drug. Without wishing to get too psycho-babblish about it, Celia's co-dependency and Rowena's inability to grow up are, to me, symptoms of the same disease as Toby's alcoholism. If fear can be called a disease, the bulk of the characters in
Intimate Exchanges seem to suffer from a fear of life and its uncontrollability.

While using comedy as the medium, Alan shows the often sad outcome of these tussles, and each play ends in an elegy to damaged souls uttered through the inarticulate poetry spoken by broken humans.

Inarticulacy is perhaps Alan's main preoccupation that draws me as a director again and again to explore his work. How useless our words can be, how, as the character Miles puts it when talking about talking in
A One Man Protest, "I realise it's not a frightfully efficient means of communication, especially when employed by two people like us, but it's the best person to person system so far devised..."

As a writer, Alan shares this obsession with many writers, among them most obviously Harold Pinter, but whereas Pinter demonstrates his theories through the use of pauses and silence, Ayckbourn offers us a torrential deluge of words: funny, inadequate, idiomatic, counterproductive; true to life, in their middle class baroque and suburban rococo.

These varied themes often unite in Alan's plays around the character of a man who finds talking difficult, and expressing an opinion even harder. In the case of
Intimate Exchanges it is Miles, very similar to Giles in House & Garden, which I recently directed, or Clive in Season's Greetings, which I have also directed, though in Swedish! Through his 'ers' and 'ahs' and silences, Miles is shown to have the power to shape others' lives as powerfully as Celia does, or Rowena or Toby, i.e. those for whom words are more accessible, more like bullets. In turn, these middle class characters are contrasted with the 'rustic' (Celia's word) Lionel and Sylvie who, through their straightforward approach to words and emotions, demonstrate, respectively, perhaps surprising erudition and incisiveness.

It is an honour for me, in Alan's temporary absence, to be directing the plays this year. I am crucially aware that I am only the third director, aside from Alan, to direct any of his plays in Scarborough, and I am delighted to have this opportunity to work at the Stephen Joseph Theatre on a collection of plays I have long admired and loved.

We hope you will come back again and again through this year and next to enjoy the various alternative versions of
Intimate Exchanges, and, by collecting the individual programmes in this folder, turn it into a collector's item!

Copyright: Tim Luscombe. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.