Review: The Year of Magical Thinking ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Review: The Year of Magical Thinking

If criticism were simply a matter of ticking boxes, it might be safely assumed that I would hate The Year of Magical Thinking. It's a 90-minute monologue adapted by Joan Didion from her book of the same name, in which she recounted what happened after the sudden death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, during the ultimately fatal illness of their only daughter, Quintana. Didion's book was finished before her daughter died, 20 months after Dunne, but the second death is folded into the play.

The play narrates Didion's devastating experience of grief and the beginnings of her acceptance of the deaths of those whom she most loved. Put like that, it sounds straightforwardly bathetic. Superficially, this show appears to have the voyeuristic attraction of the misery memoir, prinked with a blush of aspirational privilege (Didion is the very image of the privileged American, a cultural aristocrat). Worse still, it's underlined by autobiographical facticity, pulling on an authenticity which is, most often, hostile to the more elusive authenticity of art.

It could be the worst kind of middle-brow theatre, the placatory event which opens a wound only to declare that a band-aid is sufficient to erase it entirely. What prevents this is two coruscating artistic intelligences, Joan Didion and Robyn Nevin, whose work is framed by a non-invasive, minimal production directed by Cate Blanchett.

The show begins with Didion reporting the death of her husband from a massive heart attack, three months before their 40th anniversary. She speaks with a sceptical, ironic accuracy that heightens the numbed denial that is the subject of the play: the "magical thinking" that makes her refuse to throw out his shoes, because he will need them when he returns. Gradually she also reveals the dangerous illness of her daughter. The text jumps neurotically from scalpel-sharp details of the appalling present into the "safe" past, a past which at the same time Didion seeks to avoid because it is annihilatingly painful to remember.

The journey from borderline insanity to difficult acceptance is mercifully free of affirming statements: Didion is far too honest and exacting to cheat. The denial she describes is a wholly human inability to cope with pain; here she scales the grim topologies of the grief Gerard Manley Hopkins describes in his poem:

No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief
More pangs will, schooled as forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief? ....

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

Didion's is a prosaic expression of this pain, athough she often calls on poetry (Auden, for example, in a beautifully elliptical allusion to Musee des Beaux Arts in which she speaks of the ordinary details that surround disaster: "The clear blue sky from which the plane fell. The swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy.") She desires, with the passion for truthfulness which is the real mark of intellectual energy, to describe grief as it is: "Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself."

Didion is enough of a writer - which is, as Robert Frost once confessed, a cold vocation - to be able to take such deeply personal anguish and shape it into art. This is much rarer than our confessional culture will admit, requiring an almost inhumanly cool attention that at the same time admits the raw reality of feeling: the icy hammer, if you like, on the molten metal. The difference between this activity and what's called "self-expression" is like the difference between the shaped energy of a Giacometti sculpture and, say, a pile of guts on a butcher's block.

Which isn't to say that The Year of Magical Thinking is a great piece of drama. It isn't: mostly it remains great prose, an art closer to the patient, cumulative detail of weaving than it is to the sculptural dynamic of dramatic writing. But it still makes a compelling monologue that is wrenchingly moving, yet shot through with a profoundly literate and mischievous intelligence.

I suspect that Robyn Nevin is perfectly cast in this role: like Didion, she is a flawless and meticulous technician, able to modulate with superb subtlety and nuance the fluid, destabilising tensions between sceptical, investigating intelligence and shattering feeling that animates the text. If she doesn't quite scale the heights of her terrifying performance in The Women of Troy, she isn't far behind in this role. It was a grand day for Australian theatre when Nevin decided to return to the stage.

Alice Babidge's set is minimal: black cavernous walls on two sides of the Fairfax, and on the floor rows and rows of black chairs. Nevin is revealed seated mid-stage at the beginning, and moves from chair to chair, intimately close to the audience and then lost in distance, her monologue punctuated by Nick Schlieper's impeccable lighting and Natasha Anderson's sound design. I felt occasionally that the sound design lacked the nuance of the other aspects of the production, that there was perhaps the odd crudity in the direction; but for all that, what counts in this show are the text and the performance, and they shine.

However leavened by Didion's wit, The Year of Magical Thinking is an emotionally gruelling and demanding play. It's certainly not for everyone: the man next to me was almost catatonic with boredom, squirming and fiddling in his chair to the point where I was tempted to deck him, and clapped very reluctantly. Indeed, after a few conversations, I began to wonder if there is something in this show that appeals especially to women: the toughness and intellect in it is so specifically feminine, perhaps, in its unsparing relationship to feeling. But that's very wobbly territory, and I won't go there; certainly my speculations emerge from some unscientific research. But if you're interested in brilliant acting, and what bourgeois theatre can look like when it's very good indeed, go see it.

Picture: Robyn Nevin in The Year of Magical Thinking

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, directed by Cate Blanchett. Set designed by Alice Babidge, costume by Giogrio Armani, lighting design by Nick Schlieper, composer/sound design by Natasha Anderson. With Robyn Nevin. Sydney Theatre Company presented by the Melbourne Theatre Company, Fairfax Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, until April 11.


Anonymous said...

I just couldn't see the point of doing this as a dramatic monologue. The truly harrowing facts seemed insufficiently transformed by shaping and expressiveness.

I saw Vanessa do it in London in October, and only went to bask in some star power, but even Big Van wasn't reason enough to put oneself through the mill. It was like a solo Oprah with the actress playing all the self-absorbed, self-obsessed (understandably enough) guests, as well as Oprah. There were lots of "journeys" and alas, windy American psychobabble. Unshriven and deprived of catharsis (unlike at the Ralph Fiennes Oedipus - now he had even more to put up with than Joan Didion), I felt I was at a voyeuristic extravaganza, like commercial TV perving on survivors of the recent Victorian bushfires.

And it wasn't a play. (V sat for the first hour in a wooden garden chair without getting up, and the coup was when she stood up. Oh, and there were great falling backcloths at key turning points, revealing ever more of the depths and which were swept into a slot in the stage.)I salute Joan Didion as a tough as nails survivor, but she's not a playwright this time around.

Irene Worth doing her Edith Wharton stories at the lectern was more of a theatrical experience than this. I think it must be the combination of the artiste and the material, and just recounting death, doom and disaster is not enough. We could just stay home and read the papers if all we want is have our spirits lowered, and it's MUCH CHEAPER.

Ben Ellis said...

Hi Alison,
Just a pedant's query: I was under the impression that the memoir was whittled into a script by David Hare; is that not the case here?
Cheers, Ben

George Hunka said...

If only Didion had the vision or imaginative reach of either Hopkins or Auden; no wonder she reaches for the latter.

With great respect, as always, I disagree; more at my review of the Broadway production a few years ago.

And I see the connect between Hare and Didion even more clearly given Hare's recent monologues, which apparently have quite a bit in common with Didion's autobiographical meditations.

JBranch said...

I have long been content (since childhood, no doubt) to sit in a dark place and be read to, so Alison's conclusion that The Year of Magical Thinking on a stage is great prose without being great drama wouldn't have keep me away. And I'm glad that the possibility of hating it didn't keep Alison away. Like her, I was afraid it wouldn't come across well, that it be too much the "misery memoir," that it would end by reaching for uplift (which is the sort of thing that would incline me to reach for a gun, if I were the sort of person to have a gun). What kept me away from the New York production was mainly the extortionate price, and secondarily a whiff of the "star event" (which seems to have been what drew anonymous to it in London), Vanessa Redgrave's talent notwithstanding. Now I rather wish I'd found a way to go; I respect George's judgment on these things as much as I do Alison's, and I wish I could find out which side I'd land on. At a guess, it'd be Alison this time, because I'm more sold on the intelligence and the fearlessness (not to mention the artfulness) of Didion's writing than George seems to have been.

George Hunka said...

It's strange. I very much admired Didion's writing in The White Album, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Play It as It Lays (usually with the Eagles' Hotel California album on in the background -- an apt soundtrack) when I was a young'un. But I wasn't convinced by the urgency of her observations in this work; perhaps the book is different.

But as a play, it stands comparison to Wallace Shawn's The Fever, in which Redgrave starred in the film version. Like Thinking, the world depicted is that of a member of the educated neobourgeois class coming face to face with unpleasant (to say the least) experience. The difference is that Shawn's work critiques that perspective even as it inhabits that perspective; there is a tension between interior and exterior experience that gives rise to anything except acceptance; at the same time, its urgency is unquestioned. All right, this is a work of grieving, and acceptance is its ultimate aim. But -- before I land myself firmly in strangling-puppy-land -- I don't really find it very good drama, or theatre for that matter. An audience member may find him or herself in tears at the end of it, but it won't have been organic -- they'll have been dragged and manipulated into that place (and I speak as one who finds a lump in his throat even at the end of 42nd Street).

There's something in Thinking that bothers me, and I think it's that lack of distance: that neobourgeois self-absorption rather than neobourgeois self-observation. It differentiates this play from Didion's earlier essays and fiction. A thin line, but there you are.

George Hunka said...

(By the way, her late husband's novel Dutch Shea Jr. is terrific; out-of-print for years, but worth seeking out.)

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks all - Ben, Didion did write the script. David Hare directed the first production.

And thanks Anon, although you are speaking of Hare's production, not the one I saw, which eschewed things like backdrops. There's no psychobabble in this play, if a little satire directed that way.

George, I think Didion is a million miles from Hare. For one thing, she's a much better writer. (My feeling about Hare's Via Dolorosa on line here - and yes, I hated it.) I think Didion is much more pitiless in relation to herself, much more honest; Hare has investments in things that Didion simply isn't interested in. I really do wonder what you might have thought of this production. It solicited and kept all my attention, it was richly textured (it was often funny), and deeply involving. And it was bristling with razor-sharp observation, an ironic awareness (in the performance and also in the language) that stopped it from being the straightforward misery memoir. I confess: I too found that privileged voice off-putting at first, until I realised that the privilege Didion describes is a means by which she evades reality, part of the illusion with which she denies the world. And (crucially) she knows it.

Alison Croggon said...

A PS, having read the comments again: I wish I had seen both productions so I could fairly compare; but certainly self-absorption wasn't what struck me in this one. Physically, it was all reaching out, and for my money the theatrical conceit of speaking to the audience did work as a connecting device. Nevin moved around the stage from the beginning, and the text was punctuated into "scenes" where it became dark, so there were breaths through the production. Perhaps all of these contributed to my deep involvement. But from what's said here, the irony and coruscating self-analysis seemed not to be a feature of Redgrave's performance. It certainly was of Nevin's.

Chris Boyd said...

Forgive the randomness of these thoughts...

Gerard so-called Manley Hopkins was a whiny little god botherer who squandered immense talents. How? By whining and bothering god... God, how you've let me down! God, why do you give other people all the good fortune? God, I *am* worthy! Miglior fabbro he might be, he really was, but he had nothin' to say. If not for The Windhover and Carrion Comfort, he'd be in the 9th circle of hell [end rant]

Whoever adapted Didion's prose -- and, like Alison, I believe it was Didion herself -- did it a disservice. The rolling, commaless, seemingly endless sentences were turned into staccato little vectors, jabbing away. (This might have been Cate Blanchett's mistake, it's hard to say without having seen the script.)

I liked the fact that the stage adaptation was a sort of sequel to the book, one that included the second shoe drop of Quintana's death... It helped take us out of the headspace in which we know what is gonna happen. (Which is deadly in any performing art.)

It bothered me, though, that there was so little sense of how perfect Joan and John's life together was. That they spent all day every day (for forty years) side by side.

That said, maybe Didion decided that too great an emphasis on how picture perfect their lives were -- the magic circle an' all that -- might have made the story harder to take. Or made it too indulgent.

I missed the fine shades of meaning too. The careful distinctions made in the book between grieving (check) and mourning (not checked) for example.

But I was engrossed by the thing in performance. I'm sure Didion would approve that I could tell you there were 38 chairs on stage. There should have been 39, there was one missing from the pattern. (Really, there should have been 25, or even 41, but that's another matter.)

Oh, and George, did you notice the cossies were by Armani? (He's a patron of Cate's Sydney Theatre Company.)

Alison Croggon said...

Oh my - when, Mr Boyd, was poetry about "having something to say"? It has always been about the saying, and Hopkins - for all his godbothering - was a champion sayer. You forget the gorgeousness of Binsey Poplars, which I first read at about 10 (I didn't know who wrote it until I read Hopkins properly many years later, but never ever forgot that music) or "Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?" or Pied Beauty or Felix Randall or sheer glory like "That Nature is a Hareclitan Fire and of the Glory of Resurrection". To mention but a few... I can pass on The Wreck of the Deutschland, although that has particular pleasures, but that and some of his prose make him anything but overestimated. Hmmf indeed!

Alison Croggon said...

...before you spike me, I mean of course "Heraclitan fire"...

Alison Croggon said... return to topic (sorry, I got all breathless there), I thought the marriage description compellingly accurate - I got the impression of a very good marriage indeed, a dynamic relationship that self-explained its 40 years' duration. But no marriage is or can be "perfect".

margaret d said...

Am I the only one other than Alison commenting here who has actually seen the Melbourne production? I agree with Alison, a perfect match of diamond-drill clarity in writing with a flawless performance. The New York critics described Redgrave as having the air of a super-annuated six foot tall hippie, which is about as far removed from the real Didion as one can imagine. So, Anon, if your only reason for going in NYC was "to bask in some star power," I guess you got what you deserved.

Ben Ellis said...

Oops. Thanks, Alison. My memory is a product of present preoccupations, not facts.

Born Dancin' said...

I've seen the Melbourne production. I completely agree with Alison too - it's clearly a very different work to the OS versions as they're being described here. Niven is perfect.

Ethel Malley said...

David Niven is back? ;)

Fletcher said...

I agree Nevin's performance and Didion's writing both superb. My only gripe is the same one I had with the last thing Cate Blanchett attached her name to as director...intrusive and irritating soundscape (the true sign of a novice director) and pointless blocking. Fortunately Nevin and Jennifer Flowers, wonderful actors both, found a way to make it work.