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The Year of Magical Thinking | STC
Written by James Waites   
Friday, 04 April 2008 19:37
The Year of Magical Thinking | STCLeft - Robyn Nevin. Photos - Heidrun Lohr


“The sad spectacle of the publicly-grieving Joan Didion slouching toward Broadway - to modify one of her best-selling titles - was so Over-Hyped & Over-Reported that nothing on stage could meet Expectations.
Not even Didion as impersonated by the regal & elegant Vanessa Redgrave - characterized in one over-enthusiastic report as: The World’s Greatest Living Actress! - could truly astound & win Audience-Empathy.
In fact, Redgrave often seemed distant, calculating, as if inspecting Didion’s Unremitting Grief.”

I think we got a lot better than that in Sydney last Saturday night when Robyn Nevin premiered her version of the Joan Didion role in a finely nuanced and affecting performance sensitively directed by Cate Blanchett.

Didion is well known in the United States for her sassy essays, taut novels, and successful screenplays, including Panic in Needle Park (1971) and Up Close and Personal (1996), co-written with her husband, writer, John Gregory Dunne.

One could say Didion is ‘ridiculously’ well known in New York, especially among the city’s literati and glitterati, forming as she did with her husband an impressive forty-year relationship (in the city of celebrity divorce), fleshed out with fame, success, wealth and a classy upper-east side residency. And so it was confirmed when everybody who is, or was, someone, or thought they should be, turned up to the opening night of this, her first play, on 29 March 2007 at the Booth Theater on Broadway.

The paying audience which has thrown millions at the box office well in advance have been more likely interested in the Vanessa Redgrave connection, who - it has been said - was pretty much the only name discussed to play Didion in this intensely autobiographical work. There were prior connections: Redgrave, when married to film director Tony Richardson, had spent with Didion and Dunne in the past. It was all meant to be. Just as the production was apparently meant to directed by David Hare, who was overheard at the oddly timed pre-show ‘after-party’ claiming to some kind of divine right to be directing the piece as he, too, had not only written a successful one-person play - his monologue Via Doloroso - but had also successfully directed himself in it.

Of course, not every horse offers the same ride. Nor is destiny always what is first seems to be. Many a critic, and even more audience members, came away from 2007’s most-hyped Broadway show distinctly unmoved.

Fortunately, the experience is substantially different here. Hardly anyone knows Didion, so we avoided that component of celebrity hype. And, despite Blanchett directing (only her third production) the work slipped quietly into the theatre. No one was bragging in advance.

Some of us were certainly attending, in part, with an eye to Nevin’s performance. Particularly those of us who felt Nevin had not always realized her potential over recent years, when her acting duties were possibly distracted by concurrent day-to-day obligations, as artistic director, running Australia’s largest and busiest theatre company.

Since Nevin has stepped back from multi-skilling, with Blanchett and Upton (Glitter & Fluffy) now at the helm, here we were to see (besides the play) whether Nevin could recapture some of her onstage intensity which had - a couple of decades back - take her to the very pinnacle of this nation’s acting profession.

The news is good. Nevin’s performance is technically virtuosic, in a most subtle and understated way, superbly nuanced as it swings from bravado to self doubt, false courage to the real thing, from savvy thinking to mixed feelings. And a happy life with just about everything you might want, to one of barren and disorientating loneliness

Admittedly, there was that touch of constraint which attends many an opening performance. That said, everything was clearly in place, from detail to grand arch, ready and waiting for what should be a massively impressive season.

This is no mean achievement. No matter how well Didion is known among some, and rich her story, and successful her book of the same name - this is Didion’s first play. And it’s a 90-minute monologue which, while monumental in its demands on an actor, is not necessarily text-book stage writing.

Let’s go back a bit. One day the uber-New York success story that is Joan Didion found her beloved husband slumped dead over a table as she was lighting a cozy a fire and preparing a meal. At the time their only sibling, thirty-eight-year-old Quintana, was in a coma suffering toxic shock in a New York hospital. Didion, who had only known life as a managed and manageable experience, quickly found the bulk of her familiar support mechanisms falling away.

Of this experience she wrote an award-winning memoir - The Year of Magical Thinking. The ‘magic’ refers to the common projection among tribal societies of a desired alternate result, often danced and sung into being. (If we beat the drums the rain will come.) We might tend to call it ‘forcing the issue’, or even ‘denial’. Didion, the ultimate ‘control freak’, wrestled with the reality of Dunne’s death to such an extent that she refused to throw out his shoes; as that would certainly mean that her husband would never return.

In between the book’s publication and the writing of the play, Quintana died. And so Didion, quite wisely, chooses to include this narrative strand in the script. As we flit from one memory to the next - some going back to early years of marriage, others to stuffy, frustrating hospital visits - a life-time panorama comes into focus of a woman with everything slowly coming to realize that this ‘everything’, in the larger scheme of things, is not much at all.

For the more hardened among us (including me) there is a touch of: ‘Oh so the down side of living is new to you, is it Joan? You think this is newsworthy just because it’s happening to you for the first time?’ Millions around the world survive in this half-life of emotional and physical pain more or less permanently. What makes you think your pain is so special that you think we should pay (especially Broadway prices) for us to sit through it.

But we are talking here about art not life. The book is much admired for its writing. Didion’s book did capture (I am told) quite superbly, her year of loss and grieving.

And the same is required of the stage version for it to succeed. There must be mastery of the form

Specifically, an actress must not judge Didion (as I just have), but show her too us, warts and all. Nevin certainly succeeds in doing this. Nor is she sentimental. Nevin’s Didion for the most part is bright and charming and droll. But as the action unfolds, Nevin gives way to Didion’s unravelling fears. Initially, we see flickers of self-doubt, of gasping for air. We veer towards drowning. Finally a mighty resolve.

It’s a monumental piece of writing for the stage - a 90 minute monologue. A bunch of often colliding fragments, with little to steer the actor through it. So much self-obsessed patter, the work takes on the characteristics of a rubber on the verge of snapping if something ‘meaningful’ doesn’t ‘happen’ soon. Chattering endlessly about oneself is not drama and has never been.
The time component of a work for the stage requires a character to change. In this instance, the Didion at the beginning must be a different person from the Didion we come to know by the end.

This transformation comes very very late in the piece. And it is a tribute to Nevin, and director Blanchett, that we remain engaged in the work for so long before all of a sudden - about fifteen minutes from the end - the earth moves. Quite literally, specifically, dramatically.

Much of the story-telling takes us back to happier days in Malibu, California. It’s there in the crystal-clear waters, that Didion and Dunne risk danger to indulge in a carefully-timed encounter with a phenomenon in the tide that lifts them up and carries them through a fairly dangerous passage between the rocks. It’s an exhilarating act that Didion would never have braved, had it not been for the companionship of her husband. It’s also something they stopped doing after Quintana was born; no longer considering the risk worth it. After all, they now had a child to take care of and love.

In the course of the play, covering a single year, Didion loses first her husband and then her daughter. Unsympathetic as I may have sounded earlier, it is a fate no one would wish on another human being. And Didion spends the bulk of the play (and book) describing how she attempts to fend off the implications. It is her year of ‘magical thinking’.

After we have approached this year, from just about every angle imaginable - and we are starting to wonder how much longer this one-way conversation can go on without one wishing to shoot the messenger - the audience is all of a sudden shot forth to a new emotional place. In this production, as if from a slingshot: the moment is as unexpected as it is vital for the work’s success.

After all Didion’s resistance to change, we are back in the risky waters of Malibu. We have been returned to those waters several times through the course of the play. But now, for the first time since Didion lost those two human beings most close to her, she hurls herself back into the waters.

Not literally, but poetically, imaginatively, psychologically. She who has always been in control, at last gives way. To begin to heal, to learn from her suffering, to step up to life ‘alone’, and begin to live again, she must concede defeat. Win life back by tossing herself back in those waves. To survive, to continue on, to rise up and breathe again, she must give way, submit to nature’s ultimately controlling powers. Learn to embrace, however late in life, to go with the flow.

Such is the intimacy and finesse of this production, it is impossible to know where the contributions of Nevin the actress (also a skilled director) and director Blanchett (the gifted actress) begin and end. The production is a superb example of shared creativity. Having Jennifer Flowers (another gifted actress) in the rehearsal room as assistant director, would surely have been an added plus. So the work is of a piece, and I think all three women involved at the heart of its creation would be pleased to know that the result appears so resolved, at one, indeed seamless.

Alice Babidge’s set - rows of chairs facing the audience - creates a strong singular image; also serving the needs of the play quite brilliantly in giving Nevin the chance to relocate repeatedly as she starts upon a different angle to her story. Nick Schlieper’s also lighting works well. I must admit I found Natasha Anderson’s sound design somewhat distracting. She comes to the STC with an impressive resume. I have a suspicion I might have been seated right under a particular speaker, tossing the balance of the sound design somewhat awry.

I guess we might finish with a quote from the program (ps: the STC’s programs are nowadays well put together and worth the read).

“There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.”
Hamlet, Act IV, Sc 2.


The Year of Magical Thinking
is not light-hearted fare. Nor is the script faultless. In the circumstances, director Cate Blanchett and actress Robyn Nevin, together, have combined forces to create a most memorable tour-de-force.

Sydney Theatre Company presents
The Year Of Magical Thinking
by Joan Didion

Venue: Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay
Season: 25 March - 4 May
Plays: From 31 March Mondays 6.30pm Until 14 April, Tuesdays 6.30pm From 22 April Sundays 5pm From 27 April, Tuesdays 8pm Until 15 April Wednesdays - Saturdays 8pm
Matinees: Wednesdays 1pm From 9 April, Saturdays 2PM
Price: $77 / $62 Concession | Matinee $68 / $56 Concession
Bookings: STC Box Office (02) 9250 1777 | Ticketek 132 849 |

Also tours to Parramatta, Frenchs Forrest, Wollongong, Canberra and Newcastle

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Comments (14)

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I agree with all you say and more James. Quite simply the most thrilling performance in subtlety, detail and nuance I have seen in thirty years of theatre going.
Joanna , April 04, 2008

I thought most reviewers missed a chance to write something interesting - whether they liked the show or not. But of course few in the print media get much space these days - which is why writing for this site is so much more rewarding
james_waites , April 04, 2008
Just to let you know.
Not everyone who saw the remarkable Ms. Redgrave in New York came away "unmoved."
Her subtle performance was heartbreaking in its refusal to play for sympathy.
Guest , April 04, 2008
Bryce Hallet was especially ungenerous, to describe Nevin as "perfect casting" is to imply it was easy for her. Name another actress who could deliver the performance.
Andrew , April 04, 2008
Hi Guest,

re: Redgrave in New York...
You do right to pull me up.

I'm sure you're correct that the version in New York was well received by many. I wonder if she varied on nights or if people just reacted differently.

Who knows, same could happen here.

Let's see how Redgrave goes in London where she opens any minute. I will look out for the reviews there...

Cheers James
James Waites , April 05, 2008
Thank you for a detailed sensitive review of the night you saw this play. A immaculate balance of critical language and love of the true nature of theatre. It sounds like an evening of magical watching and listening. I look forward to reading you and visiting here again.
bb , April 06, 2008
Having seen both productions, I think your instinct is correct James. Redgrave was masterful in her theatrical craft and gave a lovely reading of the words, but made absolutely no attempt to persuade us that she was anything like Joan Didion. Her Oxbridge vowels and rather aloof manner were confusing to anyone who had ever read anything written by Didion, and knew her to be the shy Sacramento girl always trying to fit in to the New York and LA literary world. Nevin not only delivers the text brilliantly, but channels the woman as well.
Jessica , April 07, 2008
I saw Vanessa Redgrave in New York and found her spellbinding, as did everyone around me. There were many favorable reviews that you could have quoted, too. Miss Redgrave looks and sounds nothing like Joan Didion but was a perfect choice to carry the material. She is opening soon at the National Theatre in London. If you happen to be in town, check her out in person. I think you might be pleasantly surprised. Perhaps I am so positive because I am Miss Redgrave's age and could empathize with the material more readily than a younger person. It was a sublime evening for me. Janet
Janet Loudon , April 10, 2008
Janet, thanks for writing. I didn't really mean to draw so much attention to Redgrave's performance when I haven't seen it myself. The points I meant to highlight were that the lack of advance hype might have helped here; and that we, in Australia, need not always automatically genuflect to London & New York.

It would be equally great if you could see Nevin at work and tell us what you think.

Redgrave's performance was not meant to serve as a punching back for my causes.

That said, the only two people close to me who saw the show in New York absolutely hated it. One is a professional Australian actor/director of 40 years experience - who travels the to world to see Redgrave perform whenever he can. He considers her a 'hit or miss' actress - despite being a fan - and on the night he saw her considered it one of her 'misses'.

The other person is a leading New York drama critic whom I stay in touch with (and I do mean leading). He hated the play more than Redgrave's performance - but was also left unmoved by her work.

I only report, am not placed to endorse either response. It's not a statistically adequate survey. It is very likely more people have had a positive response to Redgrave as Didion than those who did not. And I'm not trying to take Redgrave down a peg. Unwittingly I have used her perhaps infairly in trying to make positive points about the production here.

Meanwhile I appreciate being kept on my toes by those who love going to the theatre as much as I do!

James Waites , April 10, 2008
New York Theatre Wire (my quote) is a cheap hit. I only picked it because it was te most colouful and extremist response. Not balanced journalism I admit.
PS , April 10, 2008
We walked away from Robyn Nevin's sensitive and intelligent performance... stirred. That's what good theatre should do. She did her job...excellent work!

I must strongly agree with you about the distracting cinematic soundscape, especially such unnecessary volume.

The lighting design was too obvious for my taste, especially those words on a page...stuck out like a sore thumb. Maybe, if it had been introduced at the beginning, as she let us know that she was a writer and then again at the end when she started writing again, it could have been used as 'book end', a marked moment in ithe monologue's cyclic nature...

The chairs were a perfect choice on many, many meaning making levels.... I am glad to have seen it!
Taina , April 17, 2008

I just realised you had added a comment - for the first time we've gone to a second page! I never thought to look until today - and there you were! Apologies for not acknowledging sooner.

James Waites , April 21, 2008
Loved the play and everything about it. Robyn Nevin is a national treasure (cliched, but true). You know, I saw Nevin in Breath of Life in 2003, having seen Maggie Smith in the role of Madeleine in London. Nevin was a far, far better actor in the role. She brings an intelligence and multile layers to parts while her more famous counterparts can look like they are strolling through the part. Dame Judi and Dame Maggie were there as drivers of the vehicle for Great Dames. You were never less than conscious of Who They Are. Lots of declamatory sweeps and Big Statements. Nevin (and Hazlehurst) were there as actors and marvellous. I wonder whether it was a similar story with Redgrave in this play?

One small thing in your review - (apart from a'too' which should be 'to' -easy typo - Quintana was not Didion and Dunne's sibling, but rather their daughter. A sibling is a brother or sister.
Sally , April 26, 2008
James I saw this last night in Canberra. One of the greatest theatrical experiences of my life. Glad to see that the Camberra times today for once gave this great Australian artist the credit she deserves.
Robert Fellowes , July 04, 2008

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