On Thursday I saw my favourite actress Vanessa Redgrave give her tour-de-force performance in the one woman play THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING at the Lyttleton. I had hoped to see it on Broadway last year when Owen had booked to see Buffy Sainte-Marie but his back operation 86ed that so I have been looking forward to this.
The play is by Joan Didion based on her memoir written after the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, from a heart attack. Just as the book was published her daughter Quintana also died at 39 of pancreatitis after a year of near-fatal illnesses. The play was written by Didion to encompass these two devastating blows and how she has come to accept them.
The play has had mixed reviews citing what Owen overheard two women saying afterwards, that they didn't connect with it. I can't say I 'connected' with the play totally. The fact that these real life events have been distilled twice through Didion's analytical mind - onto the page then stage - and are re-interpreted by Vanessa Redgrave leads to a definite distancing from the events. But apart from that... I found it an extraordinary experience.
It is only in retrospect that you realise the character has changed during the course of the 90 minute play. At first she is analytical and deals with the death of her husband in a rational, intellectual way - noting how the hospital staff treat her, her social worker referring to her as "a cool customer" to the doctor, checking the times of the ambulance crew entering & leaving the apartment from her doorman to get straight in her mind how long they worked on her husband lying on the dining room floor. She extends this then to her ill daughter in an Intensive Care Unit, buying medical books to understand what the doctor's jargon means and what each of the medications are.
Rational thoughts lead to irrational conclusions however: calling a friend in California on returning home from the hospital she realises they are 3 hours behind New York so that means he's not dead yet on the west coast; that she can't give his shoes away as he will need them when he comes back. She calls this Magical Thinking such as "if we sacrifice the virgin the crop will be good". Her ultimate Magical Thinking happens when Quintana is hospitalised during a trip to LA. She takes a deliberately longer way from hotel to hospital so she won't pass any of the places she remembers from living there in the 70s which will remind her of her husband or daughter. Oh and she has taken to wearing hospital 'scrubs' thinking she can then fit in easier among the medics. Yet by the end of the 90 minutes she is no longer thinking like this, the death of the daughter who was always told "It's all right, I'm here" to comfort her when a child or to as she lay comatose in a hospital room has humbled her rationale. Ultimately she comes to the understanding that they eventually must be let go of, that the shoes must be given away.
It sounds a depressing evening but there are quite a few moments of humour. It's beautifully written, a joy to hear prose like this onstage. The direction by David Hare is perfectly attuned to the rhythm of the play and special mention must be made of Jean Kalman's atmospheric lighting. Bob Crowley's set design of a series of collapsing backdrops help separate the 'chapters' of the play while being visually arresting. None more so than at the very end of the play when the last backdrop is revealed - a blowup of a 70s photograph of the family in California which is poignant after what has been revealed earlier. It's the perfect photograph for the production: Joan's husband and daughter together looking at the camera, she looking at them slightly apart.
The reason for the play's success for me lies with Vanessa. Always the most emotionally true of her generation of actresses Vanessa has mined every word of the script, witness the different changes she can ring with a phrase such as "I'm here, you'll be fine" with each repetition. I didn't believe her as Joan Didion but I fully believed her as the voice of Didion's book. Looking luminous in white and gray with her long white hair pulled back she simply mesmerizes even though at times the dry Didion style is at odds with her usual acting style.
Although I always cite GUYS AND DOLLS as the catalyst for my theatrical conversion 3 months before seeing it I saw Vanessa and Ian Charleson in two Sunday afternoon benefit performances at the old Roundhouse for the Youth Training Centres she was sponsoring. They performed scenes from Ibsen, Shakespeare, solo pieces, songs... they even did the first scene between Sky & Sarah in GUYS AND DOLLS - yes show fans, I have heard Vanessa sing "I'll Know"! Actually these benefits were the 'light on the road to the National Theatre' showing me the alchemy possible on a stage.
Since 1982 I have only missed 5 of the 24 productions in which Vanessa has appeared in this country. She has not always been at her best - it's usually dependent on the production - but her performance in MAGICAL THINKING is up there with Miss Tina in THE ASPERN PAPERS, Arkadina in THE SEAGULL, Cleopatra in ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, Mrs. Alving in GHOSTS, Lady Torrence in ORPHEUS DESCENDING, Isadora Duncan in WHEN SHE DANCED and Ranyevskaya in THE CHERRY ORCHARD.
THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING is on at the Lyttleton Theatre until July 15th.