Interview: London Mercury (1984)

This interview was published in the London Mercury on 31 May 1984.

All's Chaos In Alan's World

by Julian Cole

Leading a chaotic life gave Alan Ayckbourn the idea for a play that's so complicated it makes you wonder about his lifestyle.

Intimate Exchanges sounds like an actor's nightmare. And a thumping great strain on the mildest theatre-goer's patience. It's one play with eight different versions. Each week of the eight-week run at Greenwich Theatre will present a new face of a play that sounds like theatre's answer to The Times crossword. The play consists of a series of choices and pivots on the question: "What if ..." It works something like this.

"Each play starts from the same premise, a 30-second scene," explained Alan. "I try to start with the most trivial decision it's possible to make in one's life: whether or not a woman should have a cigarette. The day she decides to resist she goes down to the garden shed and doesn't hear the doorbell and doesn't meet a man she would have met if she'd had a cigarette." Each comedy then runs off in a rather bewildering number of directions. "And the decisions become more important," said Alan.

The idea for such a devilish puzzle of a play came after Alan found himself giving the impression that his life was ordered and straightforward. "It came from doing interviews," he said. "In interviews one tends to streamline one's life for convenience. But then I decided it didn't happen like that at all," he added.

Alan insists that everything in his own life has happened by chance. The dramatist whose 31 plays have been translated into 24 languages - even, quite incredibly Cantonese - never set out to be a writer at all.

"I wanted to be an
actor," said Alan. "I worked as an actor for eight years from the day I left school at 18 until I was 25."

In 1972 Alan became director of Scarborough's
Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round [1] - which now premiers all his new productions. London-born Alan lives in Scarborough and most of his time is taken up with running the theatre and directing new plays by himself and other writers. So much time, that writing is pushed into one small corner of his life.

The man who's produced a string of comedy hits only sets aside a few weeks a year for writing. "I usually take about a month off work and for three weeks I wander around getting highly nervous and doing nothing," said Alan. "Then with a week to go I suddenly become aware there's a cast and a designer waiting for a script - and in that week it gets done. I don't think I could write without the deadline," said Alan.

Midway through the interview, it emerges that
Intimate Exchanges not only has eight separate versions. It also has a different ending each night of the week. [2]

But Alan says that seeing just a couple of the permutations will give you an idea of what he's getting at. "It's rather like a big novel you can dip into," he said. "I don't think there's any necessity to see all of them - indeed it's almost an impossibility."

Rehearsing the play has obviously been a trial for the cast of two. Fortunately, Lavinia Bertram and Robin Herford stepped on to the stage with their eyes wide open: they appeared in the original Scarborough production.

"What we didn't know when I we started it was just how much the human brain can hold," said I Alan. "I suppose the two of them are walking around with about 14 or 15 hours of dialogue between them."

The two play a total of ten characters, five apiece. Robin has to age from 34 to 70; Lavinia from 18 to 51. Mind you, Alan claims a method to his madness. "It isn't just a cussed whim of mine to write this way," he says. "I believe it's possible to draw parallels between the characters at different stages."

Website Notes:
[1] Alan became Artistic Director of the Library Theatre, Scarborough, on 1972. He was responsible for the move of the company to its second home, the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, in 1976.
[2] Actually each of the eight major variants of Intimate Exchanges has a choice of two final scenes, which means there are 16 possible variations of the play in total.

Copyright: London Mercury. This edited transcription and the end-notes have been compiled and researched by Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.