Wildest Dreams: BackgroundBy 1991, Alan had had a number of successes with his family plays and with this success came the confidence to introduce fantasy elements, so easily accepted by the younger audience, into his adult plays. Despite the fact fantasy had been creeping into his adult work as early as Way Upstream (1981), Wildest Dreams is generally perceived as the play where Alan allowed the fantasy elements free reign.
Wildest Dreams is a dark piece that picks up Woman In Mind’s theme about the need for people to escape from reality into fantasy; a recurring theme within Alan Ayckbourn's canon. Here Alan explores it through role-playing games. These games, such as Dungeons And Dragons, had reached a height of popularity at the time and Alan was intrigued as to why people played them, what the games represented and what they offered the players.
Although the game is a motivating factor, the play is not about the game itself. The work concentrates on four people unable to cope with the reality of day-to-day life. Their only real joy and sense of self-importance appears to come from the game and the characters they play - idealised views of who and what they wish to be. Into this is injected a fifth character, Marcie, vividly rooted in the real world, who casts a spell of her own over the game-players with devastating consequences. The climax of the play, possibly one of the most surreal and distressing of Alan’s plays, sees the players retreating back into the game, physically and mentally transformed through their experiences with Marcie into caricatures of the characters they play. The mantra of 'be careful of what you wish for' is realised with cruel effect as the players become what they desire, but not what they dream of.
Like Woman In Mind, Wildest Dreams warns of the dangers of escaping into fantasy. Where it differs is in its resolution that says no matter what the consequences, some people will still be more comfortable in fantasy and choose it over reality. At the climax of Woman In Mind, Susan has a complete breakdown and we are left in no doubt she would not wish to be trapped in her fantasy. At the climax of Wildest Dreams, the players willingly choose to go back into their fantasies, despite - or perhaps because of - all that has happened.
Although the majority of Alan’s plays are ensemble pieces, Wildest Dreams has a particularly interesting set of characters - including the hideous figure of Austen, another of Ayckbourn’s fascinating male bullies. The women are particularly strong and diverse: Hazel’s descent into insanity and regression into childhood is superficially funny, but when played well is extremely harrowing and uncomfortable to watch. Likewise in the abused and uncomfortable Rick, we see a character brought out of the dark and into the light who begins to explore her potential, before she is cruelly reduced before our eyes and ultimately becomes trapped in another abusive relationship. And then there is Marcie, the lynchpin of the piece, oblivious to the real needs of those around her and utterly destructive. If, as has been frequently written, Alan Ayckbourn's female characters are amongst his strongest and most interesting, then Wildest Dreams is a showcase for them with three vividly drawn and fascinating women.
The play, which featured an ingenious set by Roger Glossop, opened at the Stephen Joseph Theatre In The Round, Scarborough, in May 1991 to strong audiences and a mixed, although a predominantly positive press. Although many critics praised its darkness and unflinching vision, others were uncomfortable and seemed content to pass the play off as Alan retreading old ideas and themes.
The play became the first of Alan’s to be staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company, who produced it in The Pit at the Barbican in 1993. Of all the London theatres, one suspects Alan felt this intimate 180 seat theatre most well-suited to the play. Alan directed the piece with Barry McCarthy reprising his role as Stanley, joined by Brenda Blethyn as Hazel, and the reviews were even more positive - the few dissenters largely the same critics who disliked the Scarborough production or those who habitually gave bad reviews to Alan. It would transfer to Stratford-Upon-Avon the following year.
The view of the critics at this point is an interesting one; Alan’s last major London play had been the short-lived The Revengers’ Comedies and it was becoming increasingly obvious the best productions of Alan’s work were those in Scarborough. After The Revengers’ Comedies, it can be strongly argued there was a critical backlash against Alan which Irving Wardle seems to succinctly sum up in his review of Wildest Dreams: “Why bother to write ambitious pieces if London is going to ignore them, when he can produce less taxing material to entertain his seaside customers.” Not that the critic was arguing Wildest Dreams was weak, just the opposite, but implying that Alan would never get critical respect until he transferred his loyalties to London; that London was the be all and end all and no audience was ever going to be as sophisticated as the capital’s audience. Alan has never subscribed to this arguably quite patronising - and misguided - view, but after Wildest Dreams he seems to be increasingly wary of London, making it clear the Scarborough productions are the definitive versions of his work. His loyalty to Scarborough also implies he believes his home audience and regional audiences are just as sophisticated - if not more so - than London ones.
Although not one of his better-known plays, Wildest Dreams is still extremely pertinent today. The idea of escaping into fantasy through games and why people do this is as topical as ever. Although role-playing games remain popular, their modern equivalent - in its infancy when Wildest Dreams was conceived - are the role-playing games found on computers and consoles. Developments such as social virtual environments (such as Second Life), Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGS such as World Of Warcraft) and the huge sandbox console and computer games (such as The Elder Scrolls, Fallout and Grand Theft Auto series) are extraordinarily popular with players of both sexes and all ages around the globe and offer an opportunity to be immersed in increasingly realistic, huge and complex worlds. Questions are already being asked about the potential dangers of these online realities set in vast, free-roaming worlds inhabited by anyone with access to the internet. They offer the chance to live an alternative life with none of the pressures and stresses of real life; no wonder they are so popular. As Alan noted in the infancy of the computer game industry when this play was created (he has always been interested in games), it is possible to lose hours of your life and become embroiled in the safe fantasies of these worlds. This has only grown in the intervening years and will continue to grow, forever posing the questions of why do we need to escape reality and how does this affect us all?
Wildest Dreams has an answer of sorts. It is perhaps one we would not wish to hear or acknowledge; that sometimes escaping into fantasy is far preferable to coping with reality.
Copyright: Simon Murgatroyd. Please do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.