Intimate Exchanges: BackgroundIn 1972, Alan Ayckbourn made an off-hand comment to a journalist when quizzed about his next project. It would be a trilogy, he noted, before quickly forgetting about the comment; it's doubtful it was actually his plan to write three plays as his next project. In 1973, a newspaper declared Alan's next piece was to be a trilogy - much to the alarm of the Library Theatre, Scarborough, which knew nothing of this plan. Neither did Alan when contacted. But the comment had been published and he liked the idea, so he decided to write what was his most ambitious piece yet and which became one of his most famous creations, The Norman Conquests.
The point being, in relation to Intimate Exchanges, Alan Ayckbourn did not plan in advance to write his most ambitious play at that time; circumstance placed him in the position to write it. Which neatly sums up both the theme of Intimate Exchanges and, ironically, also its conception.
Intimate Exchanges arguably remains Alan Ayckbourn's most ambitious play; a piece which starts with a single opening scene but which branches ever outwards to 16 different endings. It is predicated on the idea of how much difference do the choices we make have on our lives? Can the decision to smoke a cigarette make any real difference? Perhaps, perhaps not. But then if Alan hadn't made an impulsive remark to a journalist, would he then have written The Norman Conquests?
Intimate Exchanges, like The Norman Conquests, was not planned. In 1981, Alan had written the challenging river-set play Way Upstream, followed by the musical Making Tracks. The Scarborough company, many of whom had been working together for several years, then toured Way Upstream to Houston, Texas, for two months. At the climax of the tour, the majority of the company announced a desire to either take a break or to move on. Alan was left with just two actors and his initial plans for the 1982 season - which at that point involved a revival of Way Upstream - were left in tatters. As he has pointed out, he could have just recast or brought a new company aboard, but he found himself with two of the most experienced actors in the company. This piqued his interest as he had been considering writing a two-hander play for some time. It seemed like providence.
Of course, Alan being Alan, he had a slightly more radical idea than just writing a play with two actors. In 1979, he had written Sisterly Feelings which had questioned what impact - if ultimately any - choice had in our lives. There were two alternatives for each of the middle scenes and these were determined by the toss of a coin and a random choice by the actors each night. Ultimately, they led to the same climax implying we're all destined to end up in the same place no matter what our choices. But it has never been reported previously that the play had not been conceived this way. Alan's early working notes, discovered in 2010 and now in the Ayckbourn Archive at the University Of York, show a sprawling diagram in which Sisterly Feelings splits two ways at the end of each scene, leading to an array of different endings predicated on different decisions made (see Behind The Scenes for the actual diagram). Possibly because of the perceived complexity of the piece, Alan decided to simplify this structure for Sisterly Feelings, but the idea obviously still had an appeal. A single play which began in one place and then peeled off into essentially eight different plays, each with an alternative ending. It was audacious, unique and possibly utter madness to contemplate writing and acting. Naturally, when the opportunity arose to revive the idea, Alan made the decision to go forward with it.
First and foremost though, he needed the co-operation of his two actors. Without them - without actors he trusted and knew were capable of meeting the challenge - the project would be a non-starter. Over two dinners in Houston, he proposed the idea separately to Robin Herford and Lavinia Bertram. Added to the complex structure was also the final piece of this jigsaw. Each actor would play at least four different roles. The request was obviously flattering to each actor and both tentatively agreed to the idea, although Robin - recently a father - was not at all confident about what he had committed himself to. It was not long before the sheer scale of the play revealed itself.
Alan began with the structure (click here to see the structure of Intimate Exchanges), setting out the general course of each of the plays. The initial plan was to actually write the complete play in one go and introduce it entirely over the course of the 1982 summer season at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round. This proved impractical and was altered to Alan writing four of the eight major variations for the summer season before writing and introducing the rest of the variations over the course of the following year. The plays would begin in June, run through the summer, come back into repertory for the autumn before taking over the theatre again from January to mid April the following year. Not only was it an ambitious idea, but potentially a very risky one. Eric Thompson, the director of the London production of The Norman Conquests, had once remarked of the trilogy that if audiences didn't like the first one, they weren't going to see the other two and they'd have not one but three flops on their hands. Here, the stakes were even higher. It was one play, but it was essentially a year's worth of programming for the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough. If audiences did not like the idea or support the notion of visiting multiple times, it could be a very expensive risk for the venue.
The scale of the piece - and perhaps even the lunacy of the idea - had begun to become clear when rehearsals started in May 1982. Alan had completed three of the variants with one other largely completed. The summer season opened on 3 June with A Cricket Match, which went into repertoire with the other two completed variants. The rest were introduced over the course of the year ending with A Pageant premiering in February 1982. By this point Alan had written 31 scenes which incorporated approximately 16 hours of dialogue, ten characters, 12 major set changes and dozens of quick changes. At the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, a huge diagram of the structure was hung in the foyer with lights to indicate the choices of that evening's performance (unlike Sisterly Feelings, the scale of Intimate Exchanges precludes an in-performance random element) and it was emphasised not only could the plays be seen in any order but that it was not necessary to see all the plays - or any more than one - but the more you saw, the richer the play and the characters would become.
At this point, it's worth noting what Intimate Exchanges isn't. Alan Ayckbourn has written a number of what he labels 'chance' plays in which a random element affects the direction of the night's performance (the toss of a coin in Sisterly Feelings, the drawing of a card in It Could Be Any One Of Us, the drawing of the balls prior to Roundelay). The performances are affected by the random element which happens on the night during or just prior to performance. Intimate Exchanges is not a 'chance' play, but rather a 'choice' play. There is no random element to the performance, the decisions for which permutation of the play is performed is decided well in advance; while theoretically Intimate Exchanges could be performed as a 'chance' play, this is not the author's desire or original intention.
The audience reaction was key to the success of Intimate Exchanges, more so than the critical reaction. After all, positive word of mouth would keep people coming and talking about the play over the course of a year. A good review might bring people in initially, but it would not be read or relevant a week later - never mind fifty weeks later (particularly in a pre-internet era when it was not so simple to track down old reviews). Fortunately, the audience response was overwhelmingly positive with people keen to return and see how the lives of the characters altered with the choices made. It validated Alan's decision to dedicate so much of a year's programming to the play and was, no doubt, gratifying to the actors who were having to learn so much dialogue. The play's run ended on 1 October 1983, preceded in April by the Intimate Exchanges Grand Marathon, a much publicised sell-out event in which every possible permutation of the play was offered in 16 performances over 12 days.
The critical reaction was mixed, but probably not helped by the fact most of the critics did not see more than a couple of variants of the play; the story goes that the Scarborough Evening News refused to review more than one variation during the summer noting it had already reviewed the play! The critics' views varied from the suggestion it was no more than a brilliant technical exercise and acting showcase to others who felt it contained some of Alan's best work. It would be fair to say, Intimate Exchanges manages to be a bit of both. It is an extraordinary technical exercise, but it also contains some of Alan’s finest writing and - in a couple of the variants - has some heart-breakingly intense scenes of human life.
Despite its success in Scarborough, a transfer to London seemed improbable given the demands of the piece and the need of the actors to commit another extended period of time to the play. Alan's regular London producer Michael Codron showed initial interest, but Alan was not convinced it was commercial enough for the West End and was being overly protective of his plays. During the previous few years, Alan's experiences with the West End had hit a low and between 1980 and 1984, no London premiere of his plays was held in the West End (there were West End productions, but all were transfers from either the Greenwich Theatre or the National Theatre). In contrast, prior to 1980, there had been a London premiere of an Ayckbourn play in the West End every year since 1972.
However, Alan had a strong relationship with the Greenwich Theatre and he agreed with the venue's artistic director Alan Strachan to mount a limited run of Intimate Exchanges at Greenwich, which would allow him complete control over the play and to present it as he wanted. Robin Herford and Lavinia Bertram came on board and it was scheduled for a limited run. The success of the play led to a transfer to the intimate Ambassador's Theatre in the West End with Ray Cooney and Thelma Holt producing the play under the auspices of The Theatre Of Comedy. Initially scheduled for just a two month run, it eventually ran for six months in London and received a Comedy of the Year nomination in the 1984 Olivier Awards with Lavinia also gaining a Comedy Performance nomination. Incredibly, during the entire run (from the start at Scarborough to the final London performance) with Robin and Lavinia, there were no major mistakes and, famously, Alan told Robin at the end of it all he would never have problems with his lines again. Robin replied he didn’t know whether he wanted to act any more and has since become a highly respected director - particularly of Alan’s work. Robin did eventually return to Intimate Exchanges too, but this time as director when Colchester's Mercury Theatre staged a major revival in 2013.
In 1987, Robin and Lavinia returned to the roles they had created when the play was adapted for the radio. Director Gordon House (who has directed more than a dozen adaptations of Alan's plays for BBC Radio) recorded four of the eight major variants which were broadcast on the BBC World Service over four consecutive weeks. Robin Herford was also nominated for a Sony Radio Academy Award for his performance.
The most notable media adaptation of Intimate Exchanges though is the films adapted from them by the acclaimed French film auteur Alain Resnais. The film director was a friend of Alan Ayckbourn's having been a fan of his plays for many years prior to their first meeting; they were introduced when a sceptical Alan was told Resnais was in the Scarborough theatre one evening in 1989 only to discover it was true and that Resnais regularly visited Scarborough to see Alan's plays. Subsequently, Resnais told Alan of his interest in adapting Intimate Exchanges for the screen. Alan responded that perhaps Resnais had got his plays mixed up as surely he was not intending to make a film with 16 different endings. Resnais replied, no he wasn't. He intended to make two films with twelve different endings! Alan agreed to let Resnais have free rein and he went on to direct two films Smoking / No Smoking which were shot entirely in the studio with Sabine Azema and Pierre Arditi playing all the roles. The films are extremely theatrical and have a unique feel to them, whilst staying true to the intentions and spirit of the original play. Alan believes one of the reasons Resnais's adaptations of his plays work so well is his plays are cinematic, whereas Resnais's films are theatrical. The films were acclaimed in Europe and won a number of major film awards including five Cesars. Although rarely screened on television and only available on DVD in France, they stand as the filmed works - alongside Resnais's Coeurs (Private Fears In Public Places) - of which Alan is the fondest of.
Despite standing as a very strong and unique Ayckbourn creation, Intimate Exchanges has always proved problematic not only in the challenges it presents to stage but also in the commitment in terms of scheduling. The play has still proved popular with both professional and amateur companies since the mid 1980s and is frequently produced, albeit only a couple of variations at a time. The entire play cycle has only been performed once more since its original production in Scarborough in 1982 and transfer to London in 1984.
Alan frequently mentioned in interviews he would like to revive Intimate Exchanges in its entirety, but finding actors willing to commit for a year of their lives was difficult. However, in 2005 Alan decided he would revive play over the course of a year at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough. His two actors this time were Bill Champion and Claudia Elmhirst and the play was scheduled from Spring 2006 to Spring 2007 with rehearsals beginning in March 2006. Two weeks prior to rehearsals, Alan suffered a stroke which would prevent him from working for the following six months. With a decision needed quickly about the play's future, the theatre was able to secure the talents of Tim Luscombe, who stepped in to take over directing duties for the 2006 portion of the schedule. He directed six of the eight major variations of the play which met with great success at the venue.
Having recovered from his stroke, Alan returned to work in autumn 2006 and when Intimate Exchanges returned to the schedule in 2007, he directed the final two variations A Pageant and A Game Of Golf. In April 2007, Bill and Claudia performed all 16 permutations of the play in a two week gala. The play then toured to New York as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival; Alan having toured the Private Fears In Public Places company to the festival in 2005 to great acclaim. The entire cycle of plays was presented at the 59E59 Theaters over four weeks, breaking box office records at the venue and winning excellent reviews. The play was nominated for two Drama Desk Awards for Best Play and Best Actor (Bill Champion).
Given there were 24 years between complete productions of Intimate Exchanges anywhere in the world, it remains to be seen whether the play will ever be seen again as intended. In the meantime, it remains one of Alan's most ambitious works which even in the reduced form seen by most playgoers, still remains popular.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.