Intimate Exchanges: Interviews

This section features interviews with Alan Ayckbourn. Click on the links in the right-hand column below to go to the relevant interview.

This significant interview by Ian Watson was published in The Stage on 9 August 1982. It is the only known interview in which Alan and both actors from the original production of Intimate Exchanges (Robin Herford & Lavinia Bertram) were interviewed together.

An Eminently Dippable Play From Ayckbourn

A play with 31 scenes, although only five are performed each night, Intimate Exchanges is quite a challenge for Lavinia Bertram and Robin Herford - mainstays of Alan Ayckbourn's theatre company.

"We'd done
Way Upstream in Houston," says Alan Ayckbourn. "A most exhausting thing. And practically everyone was legless, including these two. But these two were actually going to come back, whereas nobody else was -everyone else wanted to go and mend their house, or go somewhere sane. And so it seemed, in view of Robin and Lavinia's long-term working association with each other and with me, that it was now or never: the stars wouldn't fall together again."

Robin Herford and Lavinia Bertram have been mainstays of Alan Ayckbourn's company at the
Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round in Scarborough for eight years and six and a half years respectively.

"I remember the first memorable meal in Houston when the thing was mooted," Robin recalls. "The idea then was to do it just over the summer - it was then four plays with eight endings. I'd actually done a two-hander before. I'd done
Sleuth, and I remembered what that was like, and I thought: 'Golly! Four of those!' But then I got back and found it was actually 16 - that did give me pause for thought. I went up and I saw this plan on Alan's wall, and he said: 'Do you want to have a look at that?' I took one look and said: 'No, I don't think I do, really.' I walked away."

Ayckbourn confirms Robin's horrified reaction when confronted with the enormity of the project. "The darkness was quite terrifying, really. It took several bottles of very good Lafitte before Robin even nodded."

It is as well to get the mathematics of
Intimate Exchanges clear at the outset. It consists of 31 scenes in all, although on any one visit to the theatre you get only five of them. The first, lasting all of two minutes, is common to all versions, and whilst the consensus is that Intimate Exchanges is actually eight plays (although there are only four possible first halves), there are 16 different last scenes of ten minutes each.

In all,
Intimate Exchanges throws up more than 12 hours of dialogue and just ten characters, all of them played by Herford and Bertram. Its mechanics are based on what Ayckbourn calls "The What-If Factor": that is, at four points in each performance, the course of the story - which concerns the headmaster of a minor prep school, his wife and various people around them - is decided by addressing the question: "What if, instead of doing this, we do that?" On each occasion, there are two possible answers; and thus, the common first scene leads to two second scenes, to four third scenes, to eight fourth scenes and to 16 fifth scenes. Clear?

But what on earth is expected of the audience?

"It's not a show that it is necessary - or perhaps even desirable -to see all of," explains Ayckbourn reassuringly. "It's a thing that we hope people will come to normally and see once, and then that curiosity will bring them back. If you really 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."

For the record, if you do go four times, you will see just 15 of the 31 scenes. (Subversive thought: if you contrive to arrive at the theatre during the interval on four other evenings, you can see a further eight of the scenes, while missing nothing you have not already seen. Understandably, the theatre makes no provision for this.)

Ayckbourn had been saying for years that he wanted to write a two-hander. Had he known all along that it was going to be not one, but eight, interlinked two-handers?

"Well, I knew I wanted the alternatives. I wanted to do the 'alternative' play which we started with
Sisterly Feelings. But with this, I knew that to make a satisfactory one, it had to be a two-hander, simply because no way can
you have eight actors in control of a vehicle like this - it just isn't possible."

Intimate Exchanges is very much a Scarborough product. In addition to the actors, Ayckbourn has brought to town his designer (Edward Lipscomb) and lighting designer (Francis Lynch) from the Stephen Joseph Theatre. The Deputy Stage Manager from Scarborough is running the show and one of his ex-ASMs is working on it too. It is inconceivable that the show could ever be produced by anything other than a permanent company theatre.

"If two actors like it, and a director likes it, and they can get the space within a company, then they could do it," says Ayckbourn, wistfully acknowledging that such conditions are far more likely to be found these days on mainland Europe than in Britain. "I don't think it could ever be done commercially" - this from a man neatly pigeonholed in a recent book as "a self-confessed commercial playwright"! - "because the rehearsal time and the
sheer expenditure on it wouldn't interest. Where the hell are you going to get two stars, who've got to commit themselves to a year or it's not worth doing- because it takes about a year to get it on. We're lucky, we can do it in six weeks, because we've done it before. Starting from scratch, they'd have to slow down: they might get two on quite quickly, but then, by the time you get to number seven, you really are needing at least six weeks."

In Scarborough, no timescale was imposed when they launched into the project. "That was variable. I think it always had to be. That's where Scarborough comes in, where you can actually plan what you're going to do as you go. You have wonderful flexibility."

"We had the problem at first," Robin Herford adds, "because Alan was directing
Way Upstream at the National, so we had to get ten scenes on before he went down there, which was a bit of a rush. They got progressively easier to rehearse as one became aware of the complexitities of the characters. It's really quite hard initially being thrown four or five characters to make convincingly rounded in a three-week rehearsal period. One had that extraordinary feeling during rehearsal when one would get to a great big scene, say, as Miles; and you'd do that, and you'd go off, and you'd think: 'Good, that's over!' And then you thought: 'Crikey, what comes now? It's me again!' And you'd go back as someone else."

Given that the later versions came off the typewriter long after the first few were in repertoire, had contradictions emerged in their characterisations? They had, they said, had a complete re-think as they brought the last ones into rehearsal.

"Nothing really contradicted," says Lavinia Bertram. "It's just that, when you rehearsed the first two, obviously you weren't aware of the background. Nothing really contradicted, but you did become a different person - our performances are very different now."

"Intimate Exchanges" clearly belongs to Robin Herford and Lavinia Bertram: it was theirs in Scarborough, and now it is theirs in town. And, unusually for an Ayckbourn, the project will not have its tens of rep replicas up and down the country.

"There'll always be the boring way out," he concedes, however. "Like people do one of
The Norman Conquests, or they do Sisterly Feelings with no twist [the chance element]. They'll do one of these - I hope."

So what sort of afterlife can
Intimate Exchanges look forward to?

"It's life has got to be limited by Robin and Lavinia's physical capacity, however successful it is. Eight shows a week in the West End is heavy playing anything. Playing a two-hander is tremendously heavy. Playing a two-hander that also is changing all the time puts it near the verge of the impossible. I think after the Ambassadors it's going to need a rest. If somebody then says: 'Do it again,' and if everyone decides it's a great idea to go to Salzburg and do it on ice, splendid. I think at the moment the door's open. They're pencilled in to a show this winter in Scarborough. It's a pencil that can rub out if they're pff to Hollywood; but if they're short of a job, it's there."

Ayckbourn is suddenly struck by the sadness of his actors' physical limitations.

"It's an eminently dippable play," he muses. "I think they should be playing it forever, and you should take the kids along and see a bit you haven't seen before. Then they'd take their grandchildren and bring you along as great-grandparents, and you'd see a bit more. That would be really nice. It would be like going back to Blackpool."

Copyright: The Stage. This edited transcription has been compiled and researched by Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.