Director: Pete Aitkin
Company: BBC Radio 3
Transmission date: 14/05/2000
Susan: Julia McKenzie
Dr Bill Windsor: Jon Strickland
Andy: Jonathan Hyde
Lucy: Tilly Gaunt
Tony: Robert Hands
Gerald: Martin Jarvis
Muriel: Marcia Warren
Rick: Jamie Glover
Susan groggily awakes from a blow to the head from standing on a garden rake, to discover the family doctor Bill Windsor tending her and apparently speaking in gobbledygook. As her senses return, he leaves her to get a drink and Susan’s apparent family enter and join her in their apparently huge and perfect grounds: her husband Andy, brother Tony and daughter Lucy. All perfect, all beautiful, all a fantasy. In reality, Susan is trapped in a loveless marriage in a mundane world, as is revealed as Bill returns with Susan’s real family, her self-absorbed vicar husband Gerald and his sister, Muriel – who lives with them but is merely a burden, obsessed with her dead husband.
Written in 1985, this was Alan’s 32nd play and the first one to be told from a first-person or subjective perspective.
Woman In Mind was largely written by Alan while on holiday in the Virgin Islands and he has said the unusual perspective of the play was influenced by the film Dead On Arrival – the narrator of the movie being revealed to be dead at the climax of the film. Oliver Sach’s acclaimed book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat was also an influence. Alan started writing the play with a male as the central character, but this changed as a woman’s voice emerged. It is an exceptionally challenging role for the actress playing Susan as not only does the character have to portray a woman experiencing a complete psychological breakdown, but she is onstage throughout the performance.
Much of the play’s impact is drawn from the fact the audience experience Susan’s breakdown through her eyes and are as helpless to do anything about this as she is. Alan has dealt with breakdown before in plays such as Just Between Ourselves. However, Vera’s breakdown in that play is viewed from outside, generally from the perspective of her husband Denis. What makes Woman In Mind so powerful is the audience witnesses at first hand Susan’s breakdown and understands her helplessness, fear and frustration.
Alan’s biographer Paul Allen believes it his most personal play and postulates a major influence on it is a breakdown suffered by Alan’s mother in the 1950s. Alan has said in interviews that there is a certain element of truth in this, but it is not what led him to write the play. He also denies it is in any way autobiographical.
A more prominent theme, argued by the critic Michael Billington, is the play is an attack on organised religion. He argues the play is: “not only about an emotionally neglected middle-aged woman’s descent into madness but also the failure of the orthodox Christian morality to cope with individual unhappiness.”
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd 2006
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