It will happen to you. The details will be different, but it will happen to you. Thats what Im here to tell you. The it that the woman on the stage, sensibly dressed in shades of white and grey, is talking about is death. Not your own death. But the death of the person closest to you. She brings with her a warning. Her story could just as easily be yours and one day will.
The woman on the stage also happens to be Vanessa Redgrave, neatly seated on a blonde wood chair, with her expressive hands gliding through the air in front of her. The Year Of Magical Thinking is the stage adaptation of Joan Didions memoir of grief, the book she wrote about the death of her husband John from a massive heart attack. They were sitting down to dinner. She was making a salad. He was drinking a scotch. And then he just stopped talking.
The play was originally performed in New Yorks Booth Theatre and is directed by David Hare; Didion adapted her own work for the stage. Though she has written several novels and screenplays, it is through her journalism that she remains best known. In the 1960s and 70s, whilst her (mainly male) contemporaries threw themselves into the worlds they were writing about with abandon, Didion retained a coolness of voice and head. She was always removed from what she was describing, insulated from the excess, collected and considered.
Here that coolness is inevitably offset though not wholly with the rawness of loss, the incomprehension. She describes the magical thinking that followed his sudden death. She cannot throw out his shoes, she explains, because, of course, he will need shoes when he comes back. She describes the lengths she will go to in order to escape what she describes as the vortex of memory, avoiding his favourite places, favourite radio stations.
While the book concludes a year after Johns death, the stage version continues. While writing The Year, Joan and Johns only daughter Quintana was seriously ill, in intensive care with septic shock. She recovered a little and was able to attend her fathers funeral but a year later she too had died from acute pancreatitis. This second unfathomable loss is also described in the play with the same level of precision. How does a person survive this? How do you continue to live?
This is inevitably a rather static production. Redgrave is seated for much of her performance, behind her a series of abstract backdrops, painted in swathes of grey. The physical antithesis of the slight, rather fragile Didion, she still manages to capture the stunned articulation of Didions bereavement, her journey through the after-world of loss.
And yet for all the shard-like details, the only thing in this production that provide the emotional jolt you would expect from such material came right at the end after all the words. Though it is an accomplished, measured performance on Redgraves part, it takes a photograph to make these people she is describing real. It is actually a rather puzzling thing to watch on the stage, the attack of reality is absent, especially in the large space of the Lyttelton perhaps in the more intimate Cottesloe this would seem less of an intellectual exercise. As it is, until the end and that photograph, it is an oddly unmoving experience, and though the details engage, there is some necessary unifying thing that is lacking.