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By Dr Tom Christie

May 30th, 2014

A RAREFIED EXISTENCE: Perceptions of Reality in Jackie Kay’s Mind Away

If there is one aspect of dementia which has endlessly fascinated writers, especially in the past few decades, it is the essential malleability of what we perceive as ‘real’.  There are few medical conditions which incline themselves more fully to Cartesian explorations of individual discernment of reality, forcing the reader out of their comfort zone as they are led to contemplate what it is that defines any one perception of existence as being somehow more ‘authentic’ than others.

Jackie Kay's one-act drama Mind Away was broadcast by Sky Arts in July 2009 as part of their ambitious Theatre Live! season, a run of six plays which included new work by leading writers as diverse as Kate Mosse and Michael Dobbs.  The series enthused critics who seemed to have developed an appetite for the kind of live broadcast drama which had previously been supplied by televisual conduits such as the stalwart Play for Today.  The welcome return of original stage drama on the small screen was greeted excitedly by many commentators, inevitably meaning that each play received close scrutiny, and this was especially true of Mind Away given that Kay was the writer who had accepted the daunting honour of penning the inaugural drama in the series.  (The central story of the play was later to be adapted by Kay into prose form for her critically-acclaimed anthology Reality, Reality in 2012.)

Kay is a multiple award-winning Scottish writer whose work has spanned poetry, prose and drama.  The recipient of the Saltire Society Scottish First Book Award, the Somerset Maugham Award and the Guardian First Book Award Fiction Prize, amongst many others, she is currently Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle University.  Over the years she has dealt with many weighty issues in her literature, and in choosing dementia as the central subject matter of Mind Away she brings all of her distinctive contemplation and sensitivity of characterisation to the ways in which the condition can demonstrate far-reaching effects on family relationships as well as influencing an individual’s ability to connect with an essentially allusive reality (given that, after all, never was a notion more given to shifting interpretation in a postmodern world).

The play employs an elaborate dual narrative.  The principal action concerns Nora (Sheila Reid), a sprightly woman in old age who is coping with the onset of dementia, who interacts with her feisty, warm-hearted daughter Mary (Siobhan Redmond), a novelist who has moved into Nora’s flat following a painful break-up with her partner.  During their playful interplay, where Mary does her best to buoy her mother through the painful difficulties of her condition by using her vivid creative imagination, the pair decide that Nora isn’t losing her memories - rather, they eventually determine, her recollections are being stolen by a handsome young doctor.  They are unaware, however, that elsewhere in Glasgow a certain Dr Mahmud (Raza Jaffrey) is finding his work constantly interrupted by a stream of consciousness that he cannot control - Nora’s ‘stolen’ thoughts, manifesting themselves within Mahmud in unexpected and unwelcome ways, much to the consternation of his medical assistant (Lisa Livingston).

Mind Away presents its subject matter with real heart, greatly aided by earnest performances by Siobhan Redmond as a devoted but troubled daughter, and Sheila Reid’s finely-controlled portrayal of Nora which adroitly tilts from affectionate recollection to livid antagonism in an instant.  It is much to the credit of Kay, along with director Pip Broughton, that so many intricate layers of characterisation are hinted at so dexterously without ever lingering on any one issue excessively.  Mary is constantly fighting to keep Nora anchored in the here and now, encouraging her mother to look forward with hope rather than continually harking back to bygone days.  Yet Mary’s own demons, reflected through her reliance on the bottle, are only too obvious to her mother in occasional, lucid moments of honest concern.  Nora’s perception of the present is sketchy and uncertain, leading her to revisit the past not out of nostalgia, but rather so that she can secure herself within an authentic reality.  Mary’s struggle, then, is to present an optimistic future for her mother to reach for instead, even while she herself feels precious little sanguinity for her own expectations.

Regularly cutting across the main action, Raza Jaffrey gives a commendable performance as a troubled professional who finds himself facing his own uncomfortable questions about personal autonomy.  His portrayal of quietly understated panic as he finds his own notions of reality under subtle assault (at one point he gives himself a Mini Mental State Examination to analyse his own cognition), Mahmud is simultaneously unnerved and perplexed as Nora’s life experiences continually intersect and overlap with his own.  But is the doctor truly a discrete and autonomous individual, or simply a figment of Nora’s increasingly fragmented imagination?  Jaffrey’s sincere and eminently restrained articulation of Mahmud’s concerns leads to an unexpected and touching conclusion, which successfully communicates the play’s overarching balance of thoughtfulness and tenderness. 

Mind Away is a drama which combines congenial humour with bleak melancholy, and makes the most of its thirty-minute duration as it explores the extent to which an individual is a prisoner of their own perceptions.  Jackie Kay succeeds admirably in examining the complexities of dementia, conveying not only the alienation that the disorder can bring but also fleshing out the efforts required to combat its difficulties.  The immediacy of live theatre, even via the medium of live television broadcast, is especially well-suited to emphasising the unpredictability of behavioural shifts as well as (through some accomplished stage direction) challenging narrative expectations in powerful and unanticipated configurations.