Woman In Mind: Articles by Alan Ayckbourn
Alan Ayckbourn Discusses Directing Woman In Mind
Alan Ayckbourn’s plays are typically never easy to direct well - the apparent ‘ease’ of the plays belying the fact that many directors find it hard to achieve the author's intentions, often wrongly interpreting his plays as broad farce or comedy. Woman In Mind poses its own unique challenge as it centres on a narrator whom the audience should trust before realising she is completely unreliable as a narrator. Here Alan Ayckbourn presents some of his thoughts on directing the play.
Woman in Mind is an interesting play in that it's a first-person narrative. And we get it all from her viewpoint. The first half of the play is all as told by Susan. What I wanted to do was to get the audience to identify with her - to say to them, this is the central character, this is the one I like. There are very few others who you could possibly hope to link with - the dream people are impossible, and there's an awful vicar, and a dreadful sister-in-law. So this woman is all you've really got, besides the barmy doctor who's obviously totally incompetent.
But having stuck with her and got on to the boat you then realise that you're on a sinking ship, because by the second act you realise, to your horror, that what she's telling us is unreliable. This is confirmed when reality and dream start getting confused: that's a rule you're supposed never to break in playwriting, because it's inconsistent. (It's justified in this case by dramatic effect). The alarm is first given by Rick, the son, when his real character (as opposed to the character she portrays for us) seems to break through to us.
Susan is the central character. She should know what she's doing. Shouldn't she?
This way we lead the audience along her path. I tried, if you like, to give them a taste of what it must be like not to be able to trust your own perceptions. This very much happens in the second half, starting with her scene with Rick. Maybe, we think, the boy has a point. But having chosen to be cast away in Susan's life boat we have no option now but to row with the woman.
I deliberately broke one of my cardinal rules of playwriting in that I encouraged the audience to trust a character - as one often does in plays - only for her to betray their trust by suddenly proving herself an increasingly unreliable witness to events. I wanted the audience to be literally thrown into her unstable world as reality and dream sequences become inextricably entangled. In other words we should experience just what it is like to lose touch with the real world, just as Susan does.
I hope, by means of the play's central device (i.e. by using the first person narrative), to draw the audience literally inside Susan's mind. What she sees we see. Thus when her senses start to betray her, when she begins to muddle reality with unreality, fact with fiction, it is my hope that we experience similar feelings - even bewilderment and slight disorientation. But always laughter, too. Always.
The end should be pretty surreal. Susan is going 'nova' and we are in the midst of the explosion right there with her. Events should move fast and grow bewilderingly darker and threatening as her world first explodes into bright colour and then begins to shrink. To complete the solar analogy she finishes up in the darkness of a black hole.
The most important thing to remember, as with all my plays, is to play it truthfully and trust the laughter will be there to run alongside the sadness, which sounds like the most obvious statement but you'd be amazed how often my stuff is wrecked by either broad production or worse still broad acting. It's a fine line to walk, especially for Susan, choosing neither to stray into deep tragedy or broad comedy.
It is my belief that a blend of comedy and tragedy is the most satisfying form of theatre - though it's also the most difficult to bring off. But operating in tandem, alongside each other the two levels when used successfully can create a dramatic tension all of their own.
This article is drawn from Alan Ayckbourn’s personal correspondence with quotes from an interview with the author Duncan Wu, published in his book Six Contemporary Dramatists (St Martin’s Press, 1995).
Copyright: Alan Ayckbourn.