The Theatreguide.London Review
The Year of Magical Thinking
Lyttelton Theatre 2008
A study in the psychology, the torment and the madness of grief, Joan Didion's play is harrowing and, as I am sure she would want, ultimately uplifting in its reassurance that she - and therefore we - can survive anything.
In the course of a year the American writer Joan Didion experienced the sudden death of her husband and the repeated medical crises and eventual death of her daughter.
Part of what got her through the horror was writing a book about it, which she has adapted and expanded (since the book only dealt with her husband) into a solo performance piece, with Vanessa Redgrave speaking in Didion's voice.
Of the infamous five stages of coping with death, Didion became fixated on bargaining, which she calls Magical Thinking. If we sacrifice a virgin, the rains will come. If I don't give away his clothes, he'll come back. If I keep her alive, he won't be dead either.
She has the self-awareness to recognise that this fed into her tendency to be a control freak, so that her reaction to each of her daughter's illnesses was to bone up on the medical books and organise the hospital stays, as if running things would somehow make them turn out right.
And she discovers the hole she was digging for herself as failure thus became her fault, and the mother's memory of promising her child that she would always keep her safe now haunted and condemned her.
The one quality that Didion explored in the book that is somewhat muted in the play is the madness of grief.
Though she acknowledges that the Magical Thinking is irrational and she is always aware of what she calls the Vortex of total despair - repeatedly in her narration she veers away from present pain to a happy memory, but soon learns that such memories are to be avoided at all costs, since they generate unbearable pain - still, her journey comes across as extraordinarily normal, a sane and natural response to the unbearable.
And that, indeed, is the greatest gift of both book and play. Almost the first words are 'It will happen to you.' and being shown that madness is a natural part of the process and not an individual failing is as valuable as the reassurance that it can ultimately be survived.
It is hard to imagine an actress better suited to deliver this message than Vanessa Redgrave.
Unmatchable at underplaying, she brings a stillness and solidity to the portrayal of Didion that both anchors it in reality and makes it universal. It is as much because of her playing as of Didion's writing that we understand that the irrationalities of grief are normal.
As directed by David Hare, Redgrave spends most of the play just sitting in a chair and talking calmly to us. But she is so subtle an actress that she invests that calmness with, as appropriate, dazed incomprehension, steely determination, willed denial, simple exhaustion and the wisdom and understanding of survival.
Indeed, the few moments that call for more wildly expressed emotions are Redgrave's weakest, breaking her almost hypnotic hold on us.
And, while it may ultimately be an actress's physical trick, Redgrave can make her character seem to age 20 years in a second when she has used up all her resources, and then visibly will herself stronger again to carry on.
Even at just 95 minutes, the play may be just a bit too long, and the last movement in particular dissipates its power by lingering.
But both as a writer's courageous self-examination and self-exposure and as an actress's demonstration of her absolute mastery and emotional power, it can hardly be bettered.
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