Woman In Mind: Articles


Designing Woman In Mind
This article was written by Alan Ayckbourn's Archivist, Simon Murgatroyd, and looks at the design challenges Woman In Mind presents for production.
"She [Susan] is lying on the grass in the middle of her small, tidy , suburban garden."

Within the original and published texts for Woman In Mind, this is the first - and largely only - description of the set. Further exploration of the Samuel French edition of the script notes in the Prop List that “In the London production, the upstage ‘dream’ part of the garden changed each time Susan’s imagination family appeared, topiary arches, rose arch, swing and statue.”
A help or a hindrance in staging the play? Alan Ayckbourn has directed the play four times now, twice in Scarborough and twice in London. The original Scarborough production had a sparse and basic set; the original London production used a series of complicated gauzes to make Susan’s imaginary world real.

“Woman In Mind was designed very simply here [at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round] - a basic grass stage with a few mounds. The lighting narrowed down to a fairly small area when Susan was in real time and then opened out and had a gentler feel to it when she entered her dream world as if the garden had assumed larger, more romantic proportions.
“The London production was much more complex with a small garden downstage backed by a series of gauzes behind which could be placed strategic props (a swing from a tree; a line of cypress trees; a maze) all slightly distorted with illusory perspectives to create her dream world. The effect was quite cunning but, in retrospect, I'm not sure how truly successful it was. The simpler the better, I think, which of course can happen easily in the round but is so much harder to achieve on an end stage. The thing can become pretentious once you enter the world of the 'black box'.”

Although Alan clearly favours the original production - as witnessed by his decision to return to the simplicity of its original staging for his 2008 revival at the Stephen Joseph Theatre - it is clear there is room for both interpretations of the play, but is one favourable?

"I thought those women's magazine fantasy sequences worked better here [Scarborough] than in, the West End. On a pros. arch stage it looked as though that imaginary family came from a specific part of the garden. When I did it in the round, I was able to do a lot with sound and light to show that it was all happening in Susan's head."


It is always worth remembering that Alan Ayckbourn does not patronises his audience in his writing, whether writing for adults or children, and frequently makes considerable demands of the audience’s attention. This is clearly the case in
Woman In Mind, where it is left for the audience to realise that what is presented is Susan’s own, misguided view of the world. In which case, there is a strong argument for basic, simple staging.
Alan Ayckbourn’s preference for a simple stage which transfers from reality to fantasy and back largely through the use of lighting arguably offers the most satisfying resolution for an audience. Susan’s fantasy grounds are in her own imagination, she quite clearly describes what they are like which is more than ample for most audiences to imagine the rest. The use of gauze to reveal a barely expanded set with several props indicating the endless and opulent seems - at least to this author’s mind - to both limit and diminish Susan’s fantasies. Far better to let the audience take the lead and imagine what they wish in the darkness that surrounds the stage. A point emphasised by the author.


“Doing the play in the round I think is by far the easiest. Nothing needs be stated - most can be left to the audience's imagination. We had three entrances - one to the house; the other two for the dream family and other parts of the garden. As the play progressed and the two families became more entwined in Susan's mind, the house entrance was also used for the dream people. The set was a grassy lawn with the odd undulation to make it more interesting and provided somewhere to sit. Props were brought on and taken off as necessary as with the deckchairs etc.”

Article by Simon Murgatroyd. Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.
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