Woman in Mind (Alan Ayckbourn): Sydney Theatre Company at the Drama Theatre (Sydney Opera House)

Woman in Mind is the first Ayckbourn play I’ve ever seen, so I didn’t really know what to expect. We included it in our subscription because it had Noni Hazlehurst in the main role, and was directed by Gale Edwards. And the concept – woman is knocked out after being hit by a garden rake, and when she comes to she finds she has a devoted fantasy family existing alongside her less-than-thrilling real one – seemed intriguing.

Up to the interval, it was fairly lightweight – amusing, but not particularly insightful or thought provoking. But after the interval, even though the funny lines were still there, it got a lot darker and grimmer. Ultimately, the play seemed to be about loneliness and dementia and people not listening to or noticing each other. I think the turning point was where the fantasy family and the real world start to interact with each other, and the fantasy became increasingly bizarre and frightening. And the way passing comments and minor events were reflected in the fantasy world, but in a completely perverted manner, was very powerful. It was very creepy and scary by the end. And the idea that Susan couldn’t escape from inside her own head was terrifying.

I think any production of this play will stand or fall by the actor who plays Susan, as she is on stage for the whole thing and carries the full emotional weight of it. In this case, I thought Noni Hazlehurst did a magnificent job. The rest of the cast were more patchy. Their challenges were completely the reverse of Noni Hazlehurst’s: they are all relatively minor parts, so it would be difficult to find the people inside them. I think this is particularly true of the fantasy family – especially in the first act – as they are so “perfect” they don’t really have any personalities. Sophie Ross, who played Lucy (the daughter) managed to pull it off, and Mark Owen-Taylor (Tony, the brother) was okay, but John Adam (Andy, the husband) just didn’t come across as three dimensional. It was arguably the most difficult of the fantasy roles. In the Q&A afterwards, he said that one thing which made it particularly difficult was the upper-class English accent. It was very important to the role (one of the features of the fantasy family is that they are a rung or two up the social ladder from Susan’s real family), but it sounds very artificial, and this makes it all the more difficult for the character to come across as a genuinely loving and caring husband.

Another interesting point that came out in the Q&A was the question of how the comedy and the tragedy was balanced. Gale Edwards (I think) said that someone had once asked Ayckbourn when the laughter should stop, and he said “at the second last line”. She herself said that, as the director, for the first couple of weeks of rehearsals she deliberately didn’t draw the actors’ attention to the fact that certain lines should get a laugh.

And a piece of trivia from the discussion afterwards. There is a scene near the end where Susan is lying in the rain and gets absolutely drenched. They do use warm water for the rain, but it is quite a long pipe going up to the stage, and so initially the water is very cold. Noni Hazlehurst said that often it has only just reached a pleasant temperature at the time it has to stop!


  1. Niki said,

    December 3, 2006 at 10:00 am

    I went to see the play Woman in Mind with my Mum, two of my aunties and my cousin who has just finished her BL.

    This interesting thing I found in discussions afterwards was that all of us had interpreted the play in different ways depending on our own personal life situations.

    Most of the member of my family assumed that the family with the priest and son was the real family and that the family with the daughter and lover was the fantasy and as a consequence of Susan’s hallucinations she was incarcerated at the end.

    For me, the play seemed to hit a chord a little different to everyone else’s. From the beginning I thought that perhaps neither of the families represented her real family as both were extremes. Susan’s back garden too was not necessarily real either, rather a fertile patch of her inner world which rotated between being narrow and overbearing to fertile and romantic much the way life ebbs and back and forth for someone suffering from bi-polar tendencies.

    The problem of time and it’s relation to reality was also a point on which my family and I disagreed. I wondered whether the interactions between Susan and her family members occurred prior to or during her incarceration.

    If we take the view that they occurred prior to her incarceration, then we feel sympathetic towards the family who were unable to cope with caring for ill Susan who hallucinated a wonderful house and family. We laugh at the bumbling family doctor and the aunt who are unable to help in any way more practical than bringing endless cups of tea and coffee and a few mild sedatives.

    If we take the view that they occurred during Susan’s incarceration, then we suppose that Susan has a warped perception of their visitations because she is too engrossed with her imagined inner world. The changing sex of her child, or maybe she did in fact have two children… or maybe one child who was indeed married or getting married…. ahhh, it is impossible to know!

    Here different questions arise as the aunt’s could very well have been a nurse at the hospital… we don’t know because we are only privy to her subjective world and not an objective one. If this was the case then the odd things that happened with the aunt’s meals and tea could very well have been hallucinations caused by schizophrenia.

    If this domestic world was entirely fantasy, then were the lighting effects the result of her madness or a reaction to medication? This is uncertain.

    If we take the view that none of the interactions with family members occurred at all, then we might also be inclined to think that the hospitalization was such a bleak reality that Susan was forced to create a preferable inner world to cope with it. Here the lies a true tragedy…. madness resulting from intended cure!

    Then there is the question of whether the incarceration occurred at all! Or was it symbolic of the trap of mental illness???

    At the end of the play I did come out with a feeling that no matter which of the above represented Susan’s objective reality, the important thing for her was for her to have her family with her, be in a home environment and to not to be left suffering alone.

  2. Administrator said,

    December 4, 2006 at 10:28 am

    Wow, Niki, those are some fascinating ideas that didn’t even occur to me!

    I’ll have to think about them a bit more …

  3. Niki said,

    December 13, 2006 at 9:53 pm

    Hehe… maybe I should be locked up??? :L)
    Love your blog, am adding it to my favourites list so don’t be surprised if I pop around often!

Post a Comment