Monday, May 12, 2008

Year Without End

I have always liked Joan Didion’s writing. In the 1960s and 70s, whilst her (mainly male) contemporaries threw themselves into the worlds they were writing about with abandon, Didion retained a coolness of voice and head. She was always a little removed from what she was describing, insulated from the excess, collected and considered. Part of things and yet not.

The Year Of Magical Thinking, currently at the National, is the stage adaptation of Joan Didion’s memoir of grief, the book she wrote about the death of her husband John from a massive heart attack. They were sitting down to dinner. She was making a salad. He was drinking a scotch. And then he just stopped talking.

On paper, it’s a strange but affecting read – that cool voice struggling against the rawness of loss. And the stage adaptation is stranger still. Basically it’s Jackanory. A very extended Jackanory (one hour forty, no interval, and me without a gin – bad forward planning) with Vanessa Redgrave on reading duties. An odd bit of casting that. OK, yes, she’s Vanessa Redgrave. But she’s the physical antithesis of Didion, and though she makes a vague stab at an accent and occasionally dabs at a tear, at times she appeared to be on autopilot.

Not that she has much to do but sit on a chair and quote verbatim from the book. Which begs the question, why bother to stage it at all? Any emotional resonance comes from memories of the book, of Didion’s words, rather than through having them spoken out loud.

While the book concludes a year after John’s death, the stage version covers more ground. While writing the book, Didion’s only daughter Quintana was seriously ill, in intensive care with septic shock. Though she recovered a little and was able to attend her father’s funeral, she later died from acute pancreatitis. This second huge loss is also described in the play with the same measured manner.

Though some of the small details described are highly poignant – her inability to throw out her husband’s shoes, for instance, because he will need shoes when he comes back to her; the ailing daughter asking her mother, over a hamburger, ‘will I make it?’ a question Didion cannot bring herself to address – the production is actually rather stiff, chilly, and, at times, rather dull. By it’s very nature this is a very static show, with Redgrave seated for much of her performance in front of a series of abstract backdrops, but given its subject matter it’s nowhere near as raw as you might expect. There is an absence at its heart. The only moment in this production that provides a true emotional jolt, is the photograph of Didion and her family that appears briefly at the end.

Perhaps in the smaller space of the Cottesloe, a greater degree of intimacy would have been achieved and the whole thing would have had more of an impact. But I’m not convinced this is something that needed to be brought to the stage at all (the book was a very Big Deal in the States and the production originated on Broadway which explains things somewhat) and unless you have a supreme need to see Ms Redgrave on stage, you’d be much better off just reading the thing.


Anonymous said...

Totally agree with you on the part where this production might have benefited from a smaller, intimate space like the Cottesloe. And my friend's mum was right about Vanessa Redgrave BEING Vanessa Redgrave again.

Steve Platt said...

Interesting. We had a very different experience of it. I hadn't read the book - maybe a key difference - and found Vanessa Redgrave at the National almost unbearably poignant and raw.

I would never, ever have considered taking my mum to it though ...

Interval Drinks said...

Hi Steve,

I have just read the striking review of this over on your blog and it has made me think a little more deeply about why this didn't work for me.

As you say I think knowing the book well made a big difference.
But I have also been fortunate enough never to have experienced the loss of someone so close, something I suspect that also plays a vital part in how one respnds to this play.