I have come to Ayckbourn late, seeing three of his shows in recent years, all of them featuring Mr Kemp. With the demise of Pinter, the stage is left to the likes of Stoppard, Churchill and Ayckbourn from the old guard, the writers who I might have grown up knowing their names, reading their plays, before even really knowing what theatre was. Pinter and Ayckbourn both started off as actors. They had a keen understanding of the way a stage can be used, and what makes an audience hold their breath, largely as a result of striving to achieve the latter on a regular basis. They also understood why people, from all walks of life, want to and enjoy coming to a theatre.
Now Ayckbourn is also bowing out. Woman in Mind is supposed to be his last show. He's written thirty thousand of them, or more, perhaps. It's worth speculating on the fate of the later ones. History can't really hold up more than a dozen or so plays by most writers: the rest wither away, the province of scholars or sectarian freaks. Wise writers cut back as they get older, but Ayckbourn, like the Stones, doesn't know the meaning of the word, stop, he's kept on rolling, his plays guaranteed an audience in his Scarborough outpost, getting the odd staging in New York, or being turned into a French film.
Woman in Mind opens with a woman, Susan, lying on a grass lawn, as Mr Kemp talks gobbledygook to her. She has two families, one of them imaginary and ideal, the other real and deeply imperfect. Gradually she and the audience realise that the imaginary one is just that: no-one else can see them, they are the product of her mind, probably caused by stepping on a rake. (That old chestnut, the old chestnut chortled.) The play becomes a dialectic, these two worlds, one real, one seemingly not, interacting in Susan's mind, as she tries to cope with her disfunctional family and her own frustrations. This dialectic leads towards the most surprising and (almost) sad of syntheses, the audience no longer certain if the play has been set in her garden or her mind, as the curtain falls on a woman speaking gibberish, the last words of a man who's said so many.
Every play I've seen of Mr Ayckbourn's has left me somewhat dissatisfied, and this is no exception. The last surreal scene might be a cop-out, meaning the narrative never quite comes to the boil it deserves. However, with Woman In Mind this really didn't bother me. Because Woman in Mind contains enough theatrical genius in its little finger to make it worth the entrance fee and the trek across an Arctic city. The punters who'd missed out on Oliver and found themselves transferred to her will never know how lucky they were.
I've never read Marivaux, but this is what I imagine Marivaux feels like. The play between the real and the unreal, the flesh and the mind, something that only a play can play at, is dazzling, funny and always disorientating. In a sense it's very simple, but that simplicity, as every fool knows, is an act of brilliant contrivance. The way in which this simple device is used gives us a sign that theatre can still be fresh, can still play with our minds; and it shows us how much fun it is to have our minds played with, by someone who knows. Who still knows how.