Janie Dee, currently starring in Alan Ayckbourn’s Woman In Mind, tells Caroline Bishop how both the good and bad experiences in life make her the versatile actress she is.
Most men may think a woman’s mind is one of the great mysteries of the universe, but one particular man seems, somewhat scarily, to understand women perfectly. “He knows it, and how did he know it?” wonders Janie Dee, who has come to realise just how much playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn understands about the workings of the female brain.
We are sitting on a sofa in the corner of a rehearsal room in North London talking about the revival of Ayckbourn’s poignant comedy Woman In Mind, in which Dee plays the lead role of Susan, a bored vicar’s wife whose experiences prove that the playwright may have discovered what has eluded most men since humanity began. “It’s scarily close to the serious, accurate facts of what women truly think about, and that’s funny and that’s good and that’s also not quite so nice as one would like to admit, being a woman,” says Dee. She is speaking in hushed, almost reverential tones as her friend, mentor and the play’s author is sitting just a few feet away. “I think he’s got some sort of divine intervention going on,” she says. “I think if anybody really understood a woman the way he obviously has written this play to understand a woman, people wouldn’t make [the] mistakes that they do. Certainly men wouldn’t say the things they do or do the things they do that upset them so much. But he would also say, I know, that if women understood themselves as well as he has understood them, they wouldn’t say and think the things they think either.”
Is he an alien being, this man who can understand a woman better than she understands herself? Well, no, actually; he is the 69-year-old former – as of two months ago – Artistic Director of Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph theatre and one of the most performed and prolific – with 72 plays to his name – playwrights in the world. He is also a former patron the Scarborough branch of relationship guidance service Relate, which might explain a thing or two.
Dee, for that matter, is a two-times Laurence Olivier Award winner who first worked with Ayckbourn in 1992 on Dreams From A Summer House in Scarborough. She went on to star in his hugely successful production of Comic Potential in 1999, which earned her one of those Laurence Olivier Awards and repeated its success on Broadway the following year. Ayckbourn may know a thing or two about women, but Dee knows quite a lot about Ayckbourn. “I love him and I want to work with him as much as I can. He’s brilliant,” she says with a tinge of sadness given Ayckbourn’s recent departure from the Stephen Joseph theatre after 26 years at the helm.
“I think he’s got some sort of divine intervention going on”
Dee has been working with him on this particular production for some months, having already played Susan with a different cast in Scarborough last September. She garnered rave reviews for her portrayal of this married woman, housewife and mother who is so dissatisfied with the reality of her life that she escapes to the rose-tinted fantasy life of her imagination, which leads to her mental disintegration. “If you were not married, or you’d never been the child of parents who were married, you might think that some of it is a bit far fetched, but I would say it’s not,” Dee smiles. “The fact is, the woman in this is having trouble staying in the real world and so she dreams a lot, she thinks, thinks, thinks, thinks, and people are always saying to me, stop thinking about it, just do it, you know, but I think that is a female thing. And he seems to have found out what we think and it’s all in the play.”
I ask if she did any specific research into mental breakdowns for the role. “Not at all. You only have to be married with children!” she laughs, half joking. Dee is married to actor Rupert Wickham, who she describes as “an extraordinary father” to their two children, 12-year-old Matilda and toddler Alfie. It is testament once again to Ayckbourn’s insight that her character’s marital situation has made Dee think about her own marriage. “If things are good I’m like wow, I am so lucky and I realise now how lucky I am because of the way things had been in the past, particularly. I see in this play how my own relationship has fluctuated between the dark and the light, so when things are good, that’s great, and when things are not so good I immediately get nervous that we’re going off the rails a bit. But I think that’s always been the case with me anyway. I guard my marriage almost too much in a way.”
Dee can also recognise the root cause of her character’s dissatisfaction. “People often say to me, how do you manage, having a career as well as children? I say to them, I don’t know how I would manage without both. Having children and a passion in your life, apart from your family – which of course is a big passion, an equal passion – but having a focus that really excites you – in my case acting and singing – if that is your other focus then you’ll probably find that you have more energy. When I have been simply at home going round and round the house doing the housework and it just never finishes, I found it much more tiring and much more debilitating as a woman, to do just that all the time. I think it’s really, really, really hard and everybody underestimates what that can do to your mind.”
“You can do everything, you must try to do everything”
Ayckbourn told her she is similar to her character “which I wasn’t sure whether to take as a compliment or not! But I thought, well, I’ll try and learn whilst I’m doing it what I’m doing wrong.”
The similarity may be more to do with the fact that Dee, like her character, thinks a great deal, and reads a lot into things. She is well known for her political views – she produced the London Concert For Peace against the Iraq war in 2003 – and at one point says Acykbourn’s play could be viewed in a wider political context, relating it to last month’s conflict in Gaza. “I would never ever dare to talk to Alan about my theses on Woman In Mind, but I can see in this play Israel and Palestine and the surrounding countries and the children of Israel. I can see it all. But then if you’re like me, and you’re thinking about these things a long time, you tend to look at the smaller relationships to try and understand why other things happen. To work out what the solution might be. As if it would make any difference to anybody, but you do.”
You might assume from this that Dee is a very serious person. But she does not seem especially so. Rather, she simply enjoys playing roles that really resonate with her, whether they be comic or tragic – or in the case of Woman In Mind, a bit of both. “The excruciating situations that he [Ayckbourn] builds are real but somehow become theatrical as well. So that although you’re playing comedy, you have to be rooted in the seriousness of what is really going on.”
If anyone can effortlessly tread the line between comic and serious, it is Dee, who has managed a versatility in her career that few others have achieved. Last year she was the highly enjoyable yet tragic figure of Joy Gresham in Shadowlands; in the summer she turned her hand to Shakespeare, playing Olivia in Twelfth Night in Regent’s Park. But drama is just the half of it. She won her first Laurence Olivier Award for Nicholas Hytner’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel in 1992, and has since starred in the musicals My One And Only and Mack And Mabel.
“I see in this play how my own relationship has fluctuated between the dark and the light”
“It’s odd isn’t it?” she muses. “When I did My One And Only, my agents didn’t bring anybody to see it for quite a long time because they didn’t think it was worth it, because it was a musical. I was so angry, because I loved that musical.”
Luckily, one person who ignored Dee’s agents and came anyway was Sir Peter Hall, who promptly offered her a very different role in a very different production: unfaithful wife Emma in Pinter’s Betrayal. It was the start of a working relationship with the esteemed director that has also seen her appear in his productions of Design For Living and Old Times. “I think anybody who says ‘oh no you can’t really do musical theatre if you want to be a straight actor’ is just foolish. It’s all a place to perfect yourself, to learn, to create. You can do everything, you must try to do everything,” Dee says adamantly.
It is clear that the thirst to learn is a major driving force for Dee, which is one reason she seems so inspired by theatrical heavyweights like Ayckbourn and Hall, for whom she has a similar admiration. “These guys have been in this business for this long and they’ve created so much, and the passion behind it is so huge, they have an awful lot to teach, and I am somebody who wants to learn, and I will continue to want to learn, if that’s possible. I would like to keep going ‘tell me more’ because you can never really become perfect.”
She may not be perfect, but as Dee’s own career progresses through her 40s, she has equally valuable advice to pass on to the younger generation. Of appearing in Pinter’s infidelity drama in 2003, she says: “Betrayal was a piece that I felt very, very in tune with from something that happened to me when I was very young, so I could draw from that. That’s why I say to young actors now, you know, if you have experiences that you think, ‘oh this is nothing to do with acting’, don’t ever think that – all life is going to help you, all horribleness as well as the good things.”
I want to know more about that past experience, but I don’t ask. Some things in a woman’s mind are meant to stay a mystery. But I expect Ayckbourn knows.