When Alan Ayckbourn's play, Woman in Mind, first appeared at the
writer's spiritual home of the Stephen Joseph Theatre in the Round,
Scarborough, in 1985, this first-person tale of Susan, a woman in the
throes of a breakdown living duel lives initially confounded critical
expectations. Here was a virtual theatrical institution, after all, who
had long been regarded, however unjustifiably, as a doyen of
middle-class mores, who now seemed to be changing tack, in terms of
both form and content.
As Dundee Rep prepare to revive Woman in Mind almost thirty years after
the play's initial outing in a new co-production with Birmingham Rep
directed by Marilyn Imrie, Ayckbourn's thirty-second original stage
work can now be regarded as a modern classic.
“I was initially interested in writing a play told entirely in the
first person,” Ayckbourn recalls of the play's origins. “That is to
say, one in which all the action is seen through the eyes of its
central character. It’s an idea used in films quite frequently, in, for
instance, the classic Dead On Arrival, but then movies are where I get
most of my playwriting inspiration, anyway. Of course, the play’s theme
itself lends itself to that convention, being the story of a woman who,
throughout the evening, gradually loses touch with reality. I felt it
would be interesting and informative for an audience to share her sense
“In the normal run of things, when you introduce an audience to your
central character, it is usually the one you say to them, this is the
person you can trust, stick with them through the evening and you won’t
go far wrong. But in the case of Susan, she is less than reliable. As
she loses touch with
her reality, so do we. When she finally completely confuses her dream
world with her real world, so do we.”
While Woman in Mind was regarded as a turning point in his work,
Ayckbourn sees it more as part of a continuum in his enormous body of
“I think over the seventy-eight plays or so that I’ve written, if I see
any sort of pattern it’s a gradual one,” he says, “a journey that
starts in light and takes the occasional turn into quite dark areas,
but then returns again into sunshine. It’s a journey with no sudden or
abrupt changes of direction. Yes, Woman In Mind belongs certainly in
that darker area of my work, and the fate of its central character is
extremely sad and touching, but Susan’s final fate is no sadder than,
say, Diana’s in Absent Friends or Vera’s in Just Between Ourselves. The
shadows have always been there if you know where to look.”
Ayckbourn's biographer, Paul Allen, suggested that Woman in Mind was
partly autobiographical. Part of this stems from the fact that
Ayckbourn changed the sex of what was initially a male lead character
to a woman, who he believed audiences would respond to more
sympathetically. Allen also suggested that a breakdown suffered by
Ayckbourn's mother in the 1950s might have influenced the play.
“In a sense, all my plays are autobiographical,” Ayckbourn says. “They
must be because I usually only write about things that I’ve experienced
either first-hand or second-hand through hearsay. By the same token,
none of the characters can truly be said to be entirely me, but only
fragments of me. So, just as there’s a bit of Susan in me, there’s also
a bit of other characters. I’m not really bothered by such
autobiographical misinterpretations, really. Critics and commentators
are always anxious to give you labels. They’re convenient, and that way
they can file you away somehow.”
Since Woman in Mind, while Ayckbourn's work has retained its hugely
populist appeal, he has also continued to diversify. Any influence
Woman in Mind might have had on what followed, however, is something
Ayckbourn regards, on the surface, at least, as minimal.
“The next play I wrote was A Small Family Business for The National,”
he points out, “and, really, you couldn’t have a more different play to
Woman In Mind than that. But then, around the same time, came
Henceforward…, which was sort of sci-fi, and different again. I think
my instinct is always, as soon as I’ve written something, I feel the
urge to sit down and write something completely different to confound
expectations and purely for sheer fear of repeating myself.”
While there have been numerous productions of Woman in Mind since it
first appeared, Ayckbourn himself re-visited the play to direct a
production in 2008. The twenty-three year gap between productions don't
seem to have dampened his enthusiasm for the play.
“I enjoyed revisiting it,” he says. “I think it still holds up. All
these years later and there are still certain taboos which surround
mental illness of any description. I mean, most of us will gather
around a friend if they have experienced some clear physical damage,
say a broken leg, but generally we remain reluctant and apprehensive if
the damage is to their mind.”
Since the 2008 production, Ayckbourn has remained as tireless as ever.
He is about to direct a new musical version of The Boy Fell Into A
Book, a family show he first wrote several years ago, and which is now
being produced in Scarborough in a new version with songs by Cathy
Shostak, Eric Angus and Paul James. Ayckbourn will then travel to New
York to present a three-play rep season of his work off-Broadway. After
that, Ayckbourn will direct a brand new work, Roundelay.
In the meantime, Woman in Mind keeps on coming back.
“I would urge them to allow, in both the production and playing, light
and dark to coexist equally,” Ayckbourn advises the Dundee company.
“You can’t, after all, create shadows without light.”
Woman in Mind, Dundee Rep, May 21-June 7
Alan Ayckbourn – A life in the theatre
Alan Ayckbourn was born in 1939, and in 1956 worked as an acting
assistant stage manager with legendary actor manager Donald Wolfit's
company for three weeks at the Edinburgh Festival.
In 1956, Ayckbourn worked as an actor at Worthing, Leatherhead, Oxford
and Scarborough, where he worked at the Library Theatre.
Ayckbourn's first full length play, The Square Cat, appeared in 1959.
Throughout the 1960s, Ayckbourn worked as an associate director at the
Victoria Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, and as a drama producer at BBC Radio
Leeds. In 1966, Standing Room Only, originally seen in Scarborough in
1961, opened in the West End.
Between 1972 and 2009, Ayckbourn was artistic director of the Stephen
Joseph Theatre in the Round, Scarborough, where many of his defining
works, including Relatively Speaking, Absurd Person Singular and the
Norman Conquests trilogy, were premiered. Woman in Mind opened there in
Between 1986 and 1988, Ayckbourn was an associate director at the
National Theatre in London, and between 1991 and 1992 was the Cameron
Mackintosh Professor of contemporary theatre at Oxford University.
Ayckbourn has now written some seventy-eight plays, with one play a
year continues to open in Scarborough, usually with Ayckbourn directing.
The Herald, May 13th 2014