The Q&A was held in the theatre following the 90-minute performance. David Hare is perhaps best known as a British playwright whose own latest play, The Vertical Hour, received its UK premiere at the Royal Court in January. The Year of Magical Thinking premiered in March 2007 at Broadway’s Booth Theater, where it ran for five months and earned Redgrave, who originated the role, a Best Actress nomination at last year’s Tony Awards.
American author Joan Didion’s first play is based on her autobiographical book of the same name about bereavement and took a year to create. John Gregory Dunne, Didion’s husband of 39 years, died in 2003, followed just two years later by their daughter. The Year of Magical Thinking runs in rep at the NT’s Lyttelton Theatre, where its currently booking until 5 July 2008.
Last night’s discussion was chaired by Whatsonstage.com editorial director Terri Paddock. For more photos and feedback, visit our Outings Blog and for details of upcoming events, click here. Edited highlights from the Q&A follow …
On translating the book to the stage
David Hare: The book is concerned with John’s death. As the character says in the play, she showed the proofs of the book to Quintana. In fact, Quintana died between the time when the book was in proofs and when it was published. Joan made the decision not to change the book to include this, but the first thing we talked about when I met her was that the play would also have to be about her daughter’s death as well. In America everyone in the audience would know that her daughter had also died. It’s hard to explain that fact in England where Joan is not so much of a celebrity. It was really difficult to ask Joan, who had just discharged the agony of her husband’s death, to go back and explore the agony of losing her daughter for the sake of the play. I think that was incredibly painful to her, and I think the writing of the play cost her a great deal. It took a year of her and me working through many drafts to arrive at what we finally arrived at …
I like a theatre of refinement; I am not a great fan of meaningless action. I go to the theatre and I watch dozens of people moving around for no apparent reason. They are all moving around to give the illusion that something is happening. I was lucky enough to be young when Peter Brook was at his very greatest. There wasn’t any movement in a Peter Brook production if you didn’t understand what the movement was for. Michael Bennnett, who directed A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls, was the greatest articulator of the stage that I ever saw. The only movement on the stage signified something happening emotionally within the movement of the play. One of the reasons I gave up directing was because I felt frustrated that no one understood this. I went back to directing for this play because I knew that we could do something that expressed an aesthetic that I love and that you don’t see very often in the modern theatre. The modern theatre tends to be a theatre of hyperactivity - you know, throw production at it, throw design at it. It’s as if we’re trying to emulate the movies, but we’re not trying to emulate the movies, we are trying to do something completely different. The endless reiteration of movies on stage is tedious to a degree, copying movies and sticking them on stage and trying to get the theatre to do what movies do. But film and theatre do two completely different things: the theatre bores in on things. This was a play that I knew could bore in on things …
It was a very intimate time that Joan and I spent doing workshops in New York and the working together with her for a year. I would say it was a very collaborative effort, and there are things in the play that relate to my experience. We all pitched in with our own ideas.
On performing somebody else's autobiography
Vanessa Redgrave: I did know the family a little. I didn’t know Quintana but I did know Joan and I had met John a few times. That was basically because my first husband was part of their circle in Los Angeles. Joan worked with us every single day in New York for five weeks and in the previews as well. We had about three weeks of previews and then she would come back and visit periodically throughout the run in New York. She was so supportive. As you can imagine, as an actress I was very aware of the immensity of what her life story with John and Quintana was and the immensity of the loss, the irremediable loss and absence. I felt extremely inadequate, but I tried not to think of that and just to concentrate on this extraordinary, wonderful text and listening to what David and she said. But she was very supportive and she was just what I needed because I was very in awe of her. David helps me not be in awe of him because he makes lots of jokes and because he is so focused on the work and what we were trying to get at and what is under the lines and in the lines and where we are going that I forget to be in awe of him. The same with Joan. She would come and put her arms around me, and for me that is my reward. That’s what an actor needs, the support of the writer and director.
Hare: I think Vanessa was a given to play the part.
Redgrave: What a lovely thing to say. To work on a piece written by Joan Didion and directed by David Hare was a gift, a privilege, an honour and a wonder. I was thrilled to be asked. When you’re playing a character in a play, even when it is based on a very true story, there is magical thinking involved. Don’t forget that, as actors, we are not supposed to be exactly like the character. This is not Joan, it is a transmutation. When a writer translates and transmutes what has happened to them for the stage, it is not a documentary. Having said that, I told David a lot of times that I feel very tall, very inept, and very inelegant playing Joan.
On re-staging the play in London following the New York run
Hare: The set and lights have changed slightly since the New York production. I had the lovely opportunity of going back to the production which is a great privilege as a director. There used to be these beautiful curtain drops throughout, then I suddenly realised that I wanted a void at the end, that from the moment the chair disappeared I wanted a complete void. So it has been great to go back to your own work and revise it.
Redgrave: Painters seem to me to be very lucky in that way. They can go back and just change it all, it doesn’t often happen for an actor or a director. The most difference I noticed between doing it in Britain and doing it in New York, having finished in New York on 25 August 2007, and also having gone over the text a lot just before David and I started work again here, was that when time has passed, you sort of come to another area. As an actress, I felt that I could suddenly see things, and I thought “why didn’t I see that before?” It was really fantastic working again on the play for two weeks as we did in the rehearsal room.
Hare: It would be true to say that everything we had found difficult suddenly became easy. That is the beauty of doing 150 performances and then having a gap and then going back to a work. It’s a wonderful testimony to Vanessa that she goes on exploring it and finding new things. There were new things tonight that she had never done before. There is a constant exploration of the work, but the exploration of it is completely secure because you have that wonderful backlog of 150 performances before that give it a structure in which you are completely safe.
Redgrave: That is absolutely true.
Hare: John Gielgud said you can only do 100 performances. You can do 50 and not get bored and by 100 you are bored. He said you can’t go beyond 100 and keep it fresh. But Vanessa has kept it fresh, and I think it is a testament both to her and to the text itself as there is so much in it.
On the role of religious perspective in the play
Hare: The reason the book is so successful I think is that it is grief for non-believers. CS Lewis is obviously the most famous handbook on how to grieve at the moment and people pass his book to each other, but of course to find comfort in CS Lewis you have to be a believer. He is no use to non-believers. The thing Joan Didion is saying is that when you confront death you confront meaninglessness and in a sense that is the problem of self pity, that you feel like it is happening to you and not to them. You are meant to feel terribly sorry for your husband or your wife but actually the person you are feeling very sorry for is yourself because you are confronting meaninglessness. I think the reason the book has had this phenomenal success in America is because it’s the first handbook for non-believers. The book has sold a million copies in America. People hand it to each other in order to get them through bereavement and, to her embarrassment, Joan has become a public figure who is associated, after a lifetime of work in other areas, with being a grief counsellor for the American people. Whenever she travels in America, if she is at an airport people will come up to her and tell her which members of their family they have recently lost. She literally has to live with this all the time, and she is unbelievably courteous and understanding and regards it as part of the obligation of having written the book that she must speak to anyone who comes to speak to her. People often ask her how to get over grief and she says “unfortunately the manner which was available to me is not available to most people, I wrote a book and that’s how I got over it”. We relished the prospect that people didn’t know the book so well in Britain so it is more of a revelation I hope.
On performing a solo show
Hare: By a wonderful coincidence, I had played a solo role in my play Via Dolorosa in the same theatre in New York, which is the most beautiful theatre in New York, called the Booth Theatre. It is a gorgeous theatre and to play a one-person show there is a great treat. It is a dramatic house of the same capacity as the Lyttelton but it somehow feels smaller, it is a more intimate house. So a lot of the feelings Vanessa has I am extremely familiar with. There have been moments where I can see little fluctuations of morale. Normally actors take morale off each other, they look into each other’s eyes and they see that they must be doing well because their colleague looks at them in a way that implies they have just said that line very well. You do feel that you’re swimming the English Channel when you’re doing a one-person show. Until you get to the other side, you have almost no impression of how the evening has gone and you wait to be told by the stage manager. Your own judgement of how the evening has gone is extremely faulty, at least in my case. In other words, I would come off believing I was Irving and told I was Robertson Hare not David Hare so I was a terrible judge of my own performance. Vanessa is a fine judge of her own performance.
Redgrave: I don’t know why you say that but it is very nice. You know, timing comes from the rhythm of the lights and also the light in the text and the rhythm in the text, but one can get very off with timing and not realise it.
Hare: There is a bit where you can’t see the shore you have left and you can’t see the shore you’re going to and that’s very frightening in a one-person show. About 20 minutes out and then 20 minutes before land, that middle bit is very frightening because you literally don’t see another swimmer go by.
On directing the play
Hare: Well, I was asked to direct because I had done a one-person show myself and so I had some experience in the form. I think the producer, Scott Rudin, was a friend of John’s and was very upset by John’s death. When he read the book, he wanted to make a play from it, which Joan originally resisted. Joan had never written a play and she was 71 and so the feeling was that, while she was an accomplished screenwriter and had written a lot of movies, it would be good to have a director on board who was also a playwright. So although every word of the play is from Joan and I didn’t write anything, on the other hand Joan and I planned the play together …
From my experience with writing Via Dolorosa, I learnt that the main problem of a one-person show, which you might say is the problem of all playwriting, is who the central character is: namely, what is the attitude from which you write the play? Similarly, deciding who the central character is if it is a version of yourself is also difficult. There are things in the play that are not totally 100 percent the way they happened, but are dramatisations of things that went on within Joan which she has dramatised. Joan would forgive me for saying this - the basic character is an overly controlling character who attempts to control everything in their life and then fights the one thing they cannot control, which is death. That was true to Joan’s character …
As I was coming here tonight, I remembered something very strange which I had completely forgotten. We assumed from the very beginning that it would be a one-person show. In other words, it is about John’s absence and Quintana’s absence. But we got a sort of bad-tempered letter from Edward Albee saying that he should write the play. It was a very strange letter. Edward Albee desperately wanted to write the play, and if he had written the play, it wouldn’t have been a one-person show. He said he hated one-person shows and he was writing to us to stop it becoming a one-person show.
On conveying tragedy
Hare: People have remarked about how the play is like a Samuel Beckett play. I prefer the plays of Harold Pinter to the plays of Beckett because Pinter is rooted in a sort of reality; Pinter’s plays are not abstract and I find the abstraction in Beckett very hard to take. What I find in this play is a sense of tragedy that is monumental like in Beckett, but unlike in Beckett, it is based in a social reality which happens to be the social reality of extremely privileged people on the upper East Side of New York, just like Harold Pinter’s social reality is of less privileged people in the East End of London. But they are both reaching for this scale of epic tragedy, and for me they both get it.
Redgrave: Those great Greek tragedies are all about queens and kings, but you don’t find an academic saying, we can’t find sympathy with these kings and queens because of their social status … The fact is that Joan has written for everybody, and everybody who comes to the play feels she has written it for them. I think the clinical reaction to death at the beginning of the play is very normal. When you have got an emergency on, you have to keep very cool. I have been through a lot of emergencies where I have had to keep cool. If your daughter has just been bitten by a snake and you don’t know if it is a poisonous snake or what, then you can’t start flooding yourself with tears. You have got to get the ambulance, you have got to get the doctor. You have got to be cool. I am sure fathers have the same and also a slightly different take on it, but as a mother you have to save the life; you have got to. It is not till you have lost that that you can grieve. I have never had this kind of death, your husband and your daughter, but to me I felt that it is absolutely normal to not be threshing about crying and getting agitated when you first receive bad news.
- by Kate Jackson