Interviews with Alan Ayckbourn

This interview with Alan Ayckbourn was published to coincide with the 2014 revival of Woman In Mind by Dundee Rep and Birmingham Rep.

Woman In Mind

How did you come to write Woman in Mind? What was the initial impetus?
Alan Ayckbourn:
I was initially interested in writing a play told entirely in the first person. 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 (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 of disorientation. 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.

The play seems to be regarded as something of a turning point in your writing. How much do you think that was the case, and if so in what ways?
I think over the 78 plays or so that I’ve written, if I see any sort of pattern it’s a gradual one, 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.

Paul Allen suggested that Woman in Mind was partly autobiographical, though you've pointed out that, other than all of a writer's work being autobiographical to some extent, this isn't the case. How much do such misinterpretations matter in terms of the play itself?
Yes, it’s true. In a sense, all my plays are autobiographical; they must be because I usually only write about things that I’ve experienced either first-hand or second-hand through hearsay. But, 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 Gerald or Bill, or even Rick. 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.

What influence do you think Woman in Mind had on your work that followed?
On the surface very little influence. The next play I wrote was A Small Family Business for the National Theatre 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.

You re-visited the play to direct a production in 2008. What was that like, and with the distance since you first wrote it, what do you think of the play now?
Yes, I enjoyed revisiting it. 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.

And what advice would you offer to anyone doing Woman in Mind now, the Dundee company in particular?
I would urge them to allow, in both the production and playing, light and dark to coexist equally. You can’t, after all, create shadows without light.

Copyright: Haydonning Ltd. This edited transcription and the end-notes have been compiled and researched by Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.