The Year of Magical Thinking | Black Swan TheatreLeft - Helen Morse. Cover - Helen Morse and Iain Grandage. Photos - Gary Marsh

“Don’t ever tell me again you can’t write,”
said Joan Didion’s husband to her on her birthday; the last birthday, in fact, that they would ever spend together. And John Dunne was certainly right. Didion’s prose is haltingly lyrical and beautifully anaphoric; restrained, yet layered. In truth, I think I would enjoy this piece if it were simply read from the book. To embody Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking, therefore, Helen Morse has a deceptively hard task.

The Year of Magical Thinking is an adaptation of Joan Didion’s memoir of the same name, originally pieced together from the acclaimed writer’s journal notes in the year following her husband John’s sudden death and daughter Quintana’s severe and eventually fatal illness. On Christina Smith’s minimalist stage and restricted to an armchair on an island of sand in almost Beckettsian isolation, Didion reaches out to us with steadfast clarity through the darkness; through a mist of simultaneous and varied memories. 

Morse must work hard not to over-blow Didion’s prose. She is on stage a few moments before the writer begins to emerge, but soon finds her stride and remains on target throughout what is a long and unsurprisingly word-heavy piece. Blessed though she is for this role with a strong physical resemblance to Didion, Morse more conveys this tiny, deceptively steely woman with bird-like grace and well pitched gesture, and Matt Scott’s lighting has her by turns appearing haggard and angelically ageless.

It is a piece filled with such paradox, as Morse’s Didion floats between clinical control and inexorable honesty, between weakness and strength; having everything, being left with nothing. Didion has painted an unflinching self-portrait and director Kate Cherry has Morse walking the line, her husky tones edging over into despair in moments before being immediately reined in. “Must you always be right?” she repeats to herself at several points throughout in an echo of her husband and as marker to her shame in being unable to save her family.

The accompaniment by Iain Grandage’s moody cello is artful; at times almost a keening, at times reminding the audience of the slow, assisted breathing of one in a deep sleep, or a coma. And Grandage’s presence anchors the piece to the stage, to the realm of art, allowing us to glimpse Didion’s experience as an object of beauty, as well as pain.

As she finally rises to makes her way upstage we are reminded again of the strength and fragility of not only this sparrow of a woman, but of the lives we lead and the people to whom we try to tether ourselves. 

The raw emotions lurking beneath Morse’s velvet veneer of control are at times quite draining, but it is a journey worth taking for its artistry and lyricality, for its circularity and humanity. Steel yourself, though, because your heart will ache.

Black Swan Theatre
The Year of Magical Thinking
By Joan Didion

Directed by Kate Cherry

Venue: Dolphin Theatre
Dates: 7 – 25 February 2009

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