The Year of Magical Thinking

Posted on: 17 June 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

A solo performance by Vanessa Redgrave receives its UK premiere.

How do you come to terms with grief and loss?

This is the issue raised by Joan Didion in her 90-minute one woman play The Year of Magical Thinking which she has adapted from her best-selling memoir of the same name and is now being staged by the National Theatre in the Lyttleton auditorium under the direction of David Hare.

The play chronicles the aftermath of her husband's sudden death at the dinner table following a massive heart attack in 2003. Their only daughter Quintana was at the time critically ill in hospital and died 18 months later.

Didion's progress through the stages of grief, from the almost deranged notion that if she superstitiously adopts the right behaviour her screenwriter husband will somehow return - she is possessed by the fantastical notion that in Los Angeles which is five hours behind New York her husband is not yet dead and could be restored if taken there - through her obsessive recall of the minutiae leading up to his demise and the gradual acceptance that pain fades with memories.

I feel that Didion's work has lost a lot of its power and sense of involvement in the transformation from page to stage. Furthermore although mercifully free of sentimentality or mawkishness, the fragmentary nature of the narrative which darts back and forth in time, fails to draw us into the drama, being in essence a patchwork of recollections and reminiscences.

Vanessa Redgrave, dressed in broad trousers and white blouse, does her best to convey the agony of grief, tinged with a mordant humour, in her long dramatic monologue, but never manages to stir the emotions or move us with her deep sense of loss.

Didion wrote that, "grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We know that someone close to us could die. We might expect to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect to be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We don't expect to be literally crazy-cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes."

Sadly though, while never boring, I found I was not able to enter her world or share her deep sense of loss.

Continue in repertory until 15th July 2008.

Laurence Green

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