The Year of Magical Thinking
by Joan Didion
Dublin: Gaiety Theatre
September 30 - October 4, 2008
Presented as part of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival
Directed by David Hare
Featuring Vanessa Redgrave
Touring: Through 2008, 2009
It is perhaps exceedingly obvious to state that death comes to us all, maybe too obvious to make the statement particularly meaningful in a general way. To state that grief follows death may be slightly more specific, and accounts of grief and mourning may well offer particular solace to people for whom these experiences are either remote or all too familiar. “It will happen to you,” says Joan (Vanessa Redgrave), an elegant and mature lady of advancing years, a novelist and screenwriter by profession sharing with her audience the story of her own experience with it. This is most likely true, and thus fair enough as a mode of address, if maybe overly direct to the point of risking sounding like a personal development seminar. Maybe it will happen to me, or already has, so what have you to offer that will enlighten me further in my own journey towards understanding?
Joan’s observations are keenly made and precisely spoken. Though she evidently suffers from a degree of self-delusion and denial regarding aspects of her response, she is also aware of this, and, as the play goes on, begins to strip some of them away. The play is based on Joan Didion’s more directly autobiographical memoir from 2005, a proverbial ‘literary sensation’ that has offered some form of comfort to millions of readers and thus cannot be easily brushed aside in cultural terms. According to Didion, this play is not intended to be a stage version of the book, but a play based upon the book revolving around a character who, ‘for the sake of clarity’ is called Joan Didion and based on Joan Didion as she appeared in the novel. Okay. Maybe there are a few more layers of denial here.
There are some poignant metaphors in here drawn from reality, such as refusing to give away her husband’s shoes in the irrational hope that he might return and will need them, and the story is sad, and human, and evokes feelings of sympathy and maybe empathy (depending on your level of connection with the circumstances). The problem is though, that the play therefore plays an uneasy game of hopscotch, attempting to leap between fiction and non-fiction, character and psychotherapy. When does a metaphor stop being a metaphor and simply revert to being a matter of fact?
The story we are told may have universal resonance as a matter of human experience, but its details are perhaps so specific to the life and times of Joan Didion that the illusion of artistic and theatrical distance is too easily eroded by anecdote. We find ourselves spotting details of life and life story, and enjoying her descriptions of them, and it’s then we realise we’re in the book, and not in a play. When we try to step back into the play and watch Vanessa Redgrave grapple with presenting this character and speaking with her audience, the biographical slippages only force us to recognise the distance between the actor and her subject in spite of her best efforts. The result is that this fine actor is reduced to a talking book, and this is precisely what director David Hare and his writer stress in the programme notes that they wished to avoid. If that is true, then there is no nice way to evaluate this production other than as a failure.
That said, there are those for whom these personal reminiscences will serve a therapeutic function and as the sales of hundreds of self-help books will attest, there is a market for such affirmation. There are also those who would be happy to pay to see Vanessa Redgrave, and with the actor standing and sitting alone in front of a series of painted silken drops that fall away symbolically like veils of illusion (yes, we got it), they certainly will get what they paid for. But the claim that this show is a fully realised work of theatrical drama rather than just ‘the play of the book’ is contentious at best, and if one’s personal interest or cultural experience is remote enough from the specifics that make up this general tale of grief, you may find yourself more bored than would be polite to admit, certainly in front of Ms. Redgrave anyway.
By Harvey O’Brien