Timothy Leary’s Six Wives at Riverside Studios


Turn on, tune in, drop out. So goes the famous line coined by an infamous legend: psychologist, philosopher, ex-Harvard professor, author, teacher and tripper Timothy Leary.

LEARY, remembered mostly for his unabashed hedonism and endorsement of LSD for its therapeutic and spiritual benefits, was many things to many people: a ‘Galileo of Consciousness’ and a ‘revolutionary avatar of the mind’. To some he was a radical guru praised for his psychedelic drug experimentation (he was known to have consumed over 5,000 acid trips in his 75 years). To Richard Nixon he was “the most dangerous man in America”.

On a personal level Leary shared his private life with six women who all, at some stage during his controversial countercultural existence, became his wives. This play, The Six Wives of Timothy Leary, chronicles their stories in a series of monologues and interactive scenes as each reflects on the highs and ‘highs’ of being married to the revolutionary messiah.

Wife number one, Marianne (Hetty Abbott), opens the play engaging in some flirty banter with a guest at a party. She is a delicate, vulnerable figure in a glamourous ball dress and white trainers, addressing the audience while waving a champagne glass as she alludes to her husband across the room.

Abbott’s American accent fluctuates, but her monologue (her only appearance on stage) gives a convincing portrayal of the late Marianne, a (seemingly lonely) postpartum depressive and heavy drinker who went on to commit suicide on Leary’s 35th birthday (his daughter was to follow suit years later).

His second wife Mary (Lisa Came) speaks to a journalist at a restaurant while recounting her relationship with the American. One of the strongest performers in the play, Came’s (presumably) genuine American accent distinguishes her from her peers, allowing the audience to focus on her brilliant performance (something that became difficult to do while listening to Charlotte Donachie’s unconvincing American twang).

Anna Brook is a fantastically funny Nena, the Swedish fashion model and Leary’s third wife. There are some lovely comic moments in her homage to her late husband, as she recounts her acid-drenched past with Leary to her current lover.

And so the drama continues as each woman recalls her past experience: hippie chick Rosemary (Donachie) addresses a rally, flighty Joanna (Katharine Bennett-Fox: a tremendous actress with wide eyes and a flare for comedy) visits Leary in prison, and last wife Barbara (Alison Baker) talks to his spirit at his funeral.

With so many different declarations and experiences to be heard over a 40-year period, the play could easily collapse into a confusing jumble, but director Timothy Hughes keeps the story tight, and directs a cast of well-defined characters, each with their own voice and look, from the 1950s right through to the Nineties.

It is an insightful and unfussy production that explores a man who may not have treated his women with the value or respect they deserved, but obviously had a mesmerising effect on all those close to him.

First published on The London Word, June 2008.
© Abbey Stirling