Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking received its UK premiere last night (30 April, previews from 25 April 2008) at the National Theatre, where it runs in rep in the NT Lyttelton until 15 July ahead of a national and international tour. The American novelist’s first play is based on her autobiographical book of the same name about bereavement, and stars Vanessa Redgrave (pictured), who originated the role on Broadway last year.
The play tells of Didion’s struggles to come to terms with the death of John Gregory Dunne, her husband of 39 years, who died in 2003. This was followed just two years later by the death of their daughter from acute pancreatitis. The stage adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking premiered in March 2007 at Broadway’s Booth Theatre, where it ran for five months and earned Redgrave a Best Actress nomination at last year’s Tony Awards (See News, 15 May 2007).
Described by director David Hare as “an indispensable handbook to bereavement”, the play examines the pain and disillusionment caused by the sudden loss of a loved one. As Joan’s daughter fights for her life, she clings onto the hope that by saving her, she can bring her husband back, keeping his shoes in poignant readiness. The production is designed by Bob Crowley.
The reaction of first night critics was generally strong, Redgrave in particular emerging with similar plaudits to those she received in New York. And although some found the play “oddly unaffecting” considering its difficult subject matter, most were keen to highlight the quality of the “unforgettable” acting – with Whatsonstage.com's Michael Coveney stating that its leading lady has “never been finer”.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “As in New York last year, Redgrave’s performance is one of immoveable emotional power, devoid of sentimentality or cuteness, with not a shred of self-pity in the tale of a woman coping with the death of her husband and creative partner … Redgrave shines like a lighthouse, her beam steady and irradiated, her voice a steady rumble of wryly inflected reminiscence… Designer Bob Crowley’s neutral grey seascapes fall to ground with a deft musicality, while Jean Kalman’s lighting and Paul Arditti’s subtle soundtrack create a nimbus of transfiguration around the actress. For the essential truth and greatness of this performance lies in its expression of what we all know. There is life after death, not in a heaven and hell sense, but in the way we celebrate our loved ones even more intensely after they’ve gone.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “Some shows are impervious to criticism. And only the stoniest heart could not respond in some measure to Joan Didion's play, based on her memoir, about the death of her husband and their daughter. But, for all the brilliance of Vanessa Redgrave's performance and the sensitivity of David Hare's production, I was less emotionally pulverised than I had expected. I put this down to the venue. Having played the 767-seat Booth Theatre in New York, Didion's work is now at the Lyttelton, which is an inhospitable space for a one-woman show. The play depends upon an intimate bond between actor and audience hard to achieve in this rigidly geometrical theatre … Redgrave brings to all this her own unique emotional transparency. She inhabits the very soul of the character, and lets you see Didion's honesty, guilt, irony, and capacity for self-examination … But, although the evening is undeniably impressive, it rarely for me became a fully shared emotional experience.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “Nowadays we are addicted to true-life confessions, in which people describe their anguished responses to the deaths of those closest to them.
So there may well be fascinated audiences for Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. They will, though, be in for a painful surprise. For this extraordinary theatrical experience proves quite different from traditional grief-fests … Sadly the beautiful, poetic playscript, with its dramatic paragraphing, is better appreciated on the page than in David Hare’s static, listless production. The Year of Magical Thinking, which requires an intimate studio space not the Lyttelton’s vastness, makes vivid and pathetic the struggle between Didion’s desperate fantasising and her attachment to reason and order. Yet Redgrave’s dry, monotonic, emotionally withdrawn performance does not convey any such conflict. This unpredictable but often wonderful actress rises too late to luminous, wide-eyed grief and crucially fails to embody Didion’s rapt, magical thinking.”
Paul Taylor in the Independent – “A double loss at the heart of the family would hit anyone hard, but David Hare is right to suggest that Joan Didion, the celebrated American writer, was quintessentially the wrong kind of person to suffer two sudden bereavements … Dressed in a simple white shirt and grey trousers, Redgrave sits on a wooden chair with her hair pulled back in a ponytail from a face that is open and beautiful in its expressive transparency. If the goal were crude physical impersonation, Redgrave would be odd casting, given that she's as tall and imposing as Didion is diminutive and bird-like. You could argue, though, that there's an awkward mismatch between the temperamental bent of the performer and the nature of the piece … Whether over-signalling the mischievous hope aroused by this authority-hoodwinking strategy or letting out a stricken wail at its ineffectiveness, Redgrave's Didion is too easily decipherable … Bob Crowley's beautiful design consists of semi-abstract backdrops that fall to the floor as Didion sheds her illusions, but I found the play an oddly unaffecting experience.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “At times last night it seemed almost indecent to review David Hare’s production of this haunting one-woman bio, just as it did when Antony Sher performed his solo play about Primo Levi at Auschwitz. How could one critically anatomise the shadow that passed over the actor’s face when he spoke of not being alive enough to kill himself? Similarly, how can one analyse Vanessa Redgrave when her long grey face creases and her voice breaks as she recalls assuring her daughter that she’ll look after her and all will be well? True, one wouldn’t hesitate to observe and praise a suffering Hecuba; but, unlike Didion or Levi, Hecuba was fictional. Nevertheless, no actress can be more emotionally true. So Redgrave proves as a series of backcloths fall to reveal an increasingly foggy seascape and, finally, to leave her isolated against a black curtain … Myself, I’ll long remember Redgrave’s wail of ‘I need him back, I need him’ as she recalls how he cherished their girl. Joan Didion uttered it, but it’s everyone’s cry.”
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