Sam Shepard’s 1985 play newly staged at London’s Southwark Playhouse features characters stuck in the past and repetitive scenes
When the name of Sam Shepard makes an appearance anywhere on stage, the great and the good amongst the thespians generally follow. And so they did, on the press night of a play that was first written for production in 1985 and which claimed an array of theatrical accolades. This time they turned out to see a new production at London’s Southwark Playhouse.
A Lie of the Mind is set in the American Midwest and ostensibly features two families dealing with the impact of domestic violence. With clever staging that swaps the main scene between the two families, the theme of violence within a couple soon gives way to other family problems which now have a chance to voice themselves and surface. It’s all done under the guise of sorting out the problems of a very argumentative couple and the devastating consequences of those fights and resentments.
The narratives that subsequently present themselves are always framed through the eyes of the men of the family and are about a world that is owned by and revolves around them, with the women merely around to do their bidding and behaving like their appendages. The family of Beth (Alexandra Dowling) has a bizarre and aloof attitude towards the violence she has endured at the hands of husband Jake (Gethin Anthony), whose hot-headed jealousy and irrational justifications for his actions would be hard to comprehend, even for the most misogynistic of viewers.
Beth’s own parents seem to be nonplussed by the life-changing injuries she has sustained, with her brother and father taking it on themselves to protect their “territories” – the family name, land and home – rather than looking out for the well-being of their daughter and sister respectively. What is most at odds with rational thinking, however, is the attitude of the women in the play: Meg, Beth’s mother (Nancy Crane), is almost wilfully ignorant of her daughter’s plight, and her mother-in-law Lorraine (Kate Fahy) excuses her son’s behaviour and tells her other child, Sally (Laura Rogers), that Jake’s temper is only to do with other people. In her mind, her blue-eyed boy would never harm family, and so she concentrates on looking after him and recreating the time she had with him as a little boy when she nurtured and attended to his every need.
All said though, domestic violence in real life is often said to defy belief with the attitudes of family members in these circumstances running contrary to expectation – victim blaming, denial of things as they are, the twisting of facts, or merely hoping that the situation will resolve itself, even if the root causes remain unaddressed. In so far as that, the characterisations may indeed represent an array of the odd sentiments and behaviours that violence within the family can present, hence the play’s title of A Lie of the Mind.
What the dialogue also brought out was the backstories, persistently harping back to the past and refusing to embrace the present, featuring a group of people who are essentially shadows of their former selves. The problem with the play is that it takes too long to get there – too many rambling and over-earnest conversations regarding family history ran throughout the performance.
Among all this, a welcome interjection was the live guitar folk-blues melodies that helped convey the loneliness of life among great barren tracts of land in that part of America. The music helped punctuate the talk of red-necked men. It’s talk that’s upheld by the women in this world who are only too happy to be peripheries to their husbands, fathers and sons. While some leeway has to be allowed for the fact that it was written in 1985, one would have hoped that even back then, the voices of women would have been a bit more spirited. Accepting this, however, the dialogue was often quite clunky and lacked dramatic diminuendos and crescendos, instead presenting a lot of similarly pitched scenes. Ultimately, it meant that be it the words of men or of women, the audience didn’t fully own or care about the characters in front of them, and that made the three hours of play-acting go rather more slowly.
A Lie of the Mind runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 27 May 2017: http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show/a-lie-of-the-mind/.
Photo Credit: Lidia Crisafulli
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