“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 | sydneytheatre.com.au
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