Review: Woman in Mind (the Dukes)

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Woman in Mind follows housewife Susan’s accelerating free-fall into psychosis. Separated from her husband in everything but marriage, patronised by her sister-in-law and abandoned by her own son, she is left only with her poisonous imaginings.

Susan was played by a terrifically competent actress who embodied the thespian attributes of Ayckbourn’s muse commendably. Being able to switch from sharp putdowns, to effortless charm, and finally to pure psychotic catharsis is no mean feat. Comic support was lent by the perpetually clumsy Bill Windsor, a stand-in for the family Doctor. His interjections provided relief from what could otherwise have been a rather laboured account of the disintegration of a dysfunctional family.

Over the course of the play, which was told entirely from Susan’s perspective (everything she “saw”, we saw) her life became increasingly invaded. Imaginary alternative family members started as quick distractions between arguments and conversations, but quickly developed into incessancy, commentating on everything that happened between Susan and her real family. They were endowed with the flagrant insouciance of a moneyed middle class which she had clearly been yearning after. Susan’s sexless vicar husband Gerald, atrocious chef sister-in-law Muriel, and estranged Trappist son Rick had nothing to offer her any more, but she remained reluctant to relinquish them. They are the relic of the happy life she thought that she once had.

What may once have been innocent fantasy became uncontrollable incursion, and by the time of the melancholy climax, Susan was left stranded in a cruel no-woman’s-land between reality and delusion. The play was an almost constant feast of anagnorisis, a gallery of peripeteia embodying the tragi-comic style of which Ayckbourn has become master.

The play was performed in the round, with the audience surrounding the actors, which at Lancaster’s Dukes Theatre means that only a few feet separate their action from our reaction. It is a novel experience to be on the same vertical level as the actors. Subtle shifts in their body language or faces had instant effect, particularly from stronger and more engaging members of the cast. The characters were free to turn their back on different parts of the audience at any point, losing exclusive command of the stage. That all the audience could see the actors, but the actors could not see all of the audience, requires the audience itself to become a key influence on the nature of the performance. Unlike proscenium productions, the actor is brought into the same space as the audience, in effect removing the fourth wall.

Impressive uses of simple stagecraft emphasised the effects of Susan’s breakdown throughout the play. For instance, different lighting for the two worlds at the start became more and more nebulous as Susan descended deeper into psychosis. By the end, her two worlds were so blurred that there was hardly any distinction at all.

Unfortunately, some of the crucial exchanges in the narrative were let down by wooden performances from Lucy and Muriel. An important conversation where Lucy revealed that she was due to be married to a man whom Susan had never met, in an eerie premonition of Rick’s own announcement of marriage, was ultimately ruined by bland and monotonous delivery. Gerald was well portrayed, laughing at his own little jokes, and genuine devotion to his pathetically dull book.

Woman in Mind left the audience with a shocking impression of the experience of dealing with mental breakdown. The isolation that Susan faced, the disparateness between her and her family, and the diverse failure of faiths were the most potent aspects of Ayckbourn’s script.

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