Lyttelton, National Theatre, London SE1
The ingredients promise something unforgettable. An extraordinary memoir about the nature of grief, written and adapted for the stage by one of America’s great prose writers, directed by one of Britain’s greatest playwrights, and performed by one of the country’s finest actresses.
Yet although The Year of Magical Thinking, by the journalist Joan Didion, directed by David Hare and starring Vanessa Redgrave, was an acclaimed sell-out when it appeared on Broadway last year, here in London it appears to be much less than the sum of its parts.
Didion’s bestselling book about the sudden death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, became a must-read in America, a comforter for those who have lost the love of their life, and a warning for those who have yet to experience that pain. As Didion says: “This is going to happen. The details will be different, but it will happen to you.”
In Didion’s case the details are shockingly simple. She and her husband were just about to have dinner in their New York apartment, when John died of a heart attack. One moment he was talking, the next he wasn’t.
Then, 18 months later, Didion’s daughter Quintana died after a long illness. The book was already out when that happened, so Didion updated her monologue version to include her daughter’s death.
Both book and play are gripping pieces of work. Their poignant power lies in the author turning on herself the forensic, dispassionate gaze with which she spent a career reporting the lives of others. It is a little like watching a pathologist carry out her own autopsy.
The magical thinking of the title is an anthropological term used by Didion to describe the flawed logic of the grieving mind, which is convinced that the dead, if certain rituals are observed, will return, and that the dying, if certain thoughts are avoided, will live.
For most of Hare’s uninterrupted 90-minute production, Redgrave sits in a wooden chair, her grey outfit matching Bob Crowley’s minimalist set — a series of grey-washed canvases that dramatically fall away at intervals.
But all this restraint is undermined by Redgrave’s surprising flamboyance, with sudden gesticulations and flourishes. The sense here is one of text serving actress rather than the other way round.
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