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A CurtainUp Review
The Year of Magical Thinking

The Year of Magical Thinking comes to Londonís National Theatre where it is a sell out. Why? Well not because of Joan Didion whose play we have paid to see but because it stars Vanessa Redgrave and there are many who want to see this great actress onstage. And yes we get a very impressive performance from La Redgrave, daughter of Sir Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson, mother of Natasha and Joely Richardson, sister of Corin and Lynne, and aunt to Jemma, if we want to extend the numerous and talented Redgrave acting dynasty. On the occasion of Vanessa Redgrave's birth, Laurence Olivier, who was playing Hamlet to Michael Redgrave's Laertes at the time, announced to the audience, "Ladies and gentlemen, tonight a great actress has been born. Laertes has a daughter." Little can Olivier have known his powers of precognition.

However I felt underwhelmed by Joan Didionís very personal memoir which I think I would have preferred to read, just me and her words in a book, rather than to see it staged and have expectations of a dramatic event. Her conclusion, making sense of personal tragedy with the deaths of her husband and her daughter, was actually the one we reached thirty years ago when my mother and I tried to come to terms with the death of my father. It was about change. For him the battle was over. The test of us was whether we could adapt to the change that his death brought. I wanted to know more about Joan Didionís marriage, the relationship with her husband which hints at Joan feeling almost left out as Quintana and her husband get on famously.

Vanessa Redgraveís deep, cigarette rich voice is commanding. She will fix a member of the audience in the front row with her gaze as if she is talking to just one person. As Elyse Sommer noticed, as she talks about the hippie days of the early 1970s, she unties her hair and lets it fall like a young woman and then, as she returns to discussion of the current decade, reties it. Like Elyse, I found David Hareís direction imperceptible; the closest we get to action is the fall of the colour washed, grey silk backdrop with each chapter ending. As she took her curtain call with a look of great humility and gratitude, I had to remind myself that this was all part of a great performance.

Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge on 17th May 2008 at the Lyttelton Theatre National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1
Box Office: 020 8452 3000
Booking to 15th July 2008
Production credits as for New York
This happened on Dec. 30, 2003. That may seem a while ago, but it won't when it happens to you.You don't want to think it could happen to you. That's why I'm here.The details are different, but it will happen to you. That's what I'm here to tell you— Vanessa Redgrave as Joan Didion's stand-in as she begins to tell the audience about her own double encounter with the unimaginable, her husband's death as she was preparing a salad for dinner ("You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.") which escalated into a Greek tragedy when her beloved daughter died two years later.
The Year of Magical Thinking on Broadway, reviewed by Elyse Sommer

Vanessa Redgrave in Year of Magical Thinking
Vanessa Redgrave The Year of Magical Thinking
(Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)
What do Tom Stoppard's 8 1/2 hour, 40+ actor strong trilogy The Coast of Utopia, and Joan Didion's ninety-five minute solo play, The Year of Magical Thinking have in common? Both have been embraced by New York's serious theater goers. Granted some found Stoppard's trilogy a too talky, overextended history lesson and Didion's staged memoir less than dramatically engaging, but at least, when conversation turned to the theater, which this season meant these two plays, they could join in. In short, the common denominator between these very different theatrical experiences is snob appeal.

I've already clocked in at length about The Coast of Utopia, Therefore suffice it to say that as a Stoppard fan and someone who loves to see epic stories and lots of actors on stage, I went with high expectations and wasn't disappointed. On the other hand, I found the Joan Didion's memoir as excerpted in The New York Times compelling, but not enough so to put the entire book on my immediate must-read list. That excerpt was substantial enough to make me doubtful about how that cool, anthropological Didion style could translate into the format of a play.

It takes a lot to bring dramatic liveliness to a solo play. Often, the actor on stage assumes a variety of voices, moves around a lot, changes outfits and is supported by a colorful set or projections. These theatrical devices are less useful for a story about grievous loss and pain, like Didion's double loss of her beloved husband John (suddenly) and daughter Quintana (a more drawn-out but equally horrendous tragedy). It therefore takes a great actor to make such a monologue a riveting, emotionally satisfying and memorable piece of theater. Occasionally, we see an example that proves that it can be done. Primo, adapted from Holocaust survivor Primo Levi's writings by Anthony Sher and performed by Sher, is the most recent example that comes to mind.

When Vanessa Redgrave was cast to be Didion's alter ego, my hopes rose that she could bring off this very difficult sort of public grieving. With direction in the hands of David Hare, who knows a thing or two about solo plays, having written and performed in the very successful Via Dolorosa, it did seem possible that the collaboration of three well-respected artists could imbue The Year of Magical Thinking with theatrical magic.

It did and it didn't.

There's no question that Redgrave is a superb actress. She is an imposing, attention holding presence, her blue-eyed gaze is almost hypnotic. She can do wonders with her hands and mini-props like a bracelet, and seemingly unplanned things, like loosening her elegant white hair during a happy memory. And it doesn't really matter that she and Joan Didion are total physical opposites. What does matter is that Redgrave, like any great thespian, thrives on emotional depth, while Didion's trademark is a restraint that makes you read between the lines. Consequently, there's just so much Redgrave can do with text, that despite its highly charged content and welcome bits of ironic humor, is basically a talking book.

Maybe if David Hare had, in addition to directing, done some heavy handholding for Didion's first outing as a playwright, she would have been able to make more drama enhancing changes in the playscript. The fact that the only time that I found myself genuinely engaged, my throat tight and my hands clenched, was past the halfway mark when the emphasis shifts to the added material about Quintana's final illness. What mother can fail to respond to the agonizing question at the heart of this elegy: "why couldn't I have kept the promise I always made to my child that I would keep her safe?" What spouse who has lost a beloved partner doesn't have to find a way towards accepting that what happened really did happen (the "magical thinking" of the woman tagged by the doctors as "a cool customer" involved her deluding herself that John would come back, at one point saying "I can't give away his shoes. He'll need shoes when he comes back").

Hare's directing does little to relieve the essential stasis. He keeps Redgrave pretty much glued to the chair that is backed by scrims (designed by Bob Crowley) that suggest abstract paintings of the California beach Didion and her family loved. Intermittently, these scrims drop like a page marked "end of chapter" which again points to a major problem in this page to stage adaptation. Didion's memoir wasn't written as a non-stop page turner. The thoughts and feelings this sort of book stirs up (your own memories and fears as well as the author's) are best digested a chapter or two at a time. Swallowing all of this in one big bite, even with Redgrave to feed us Didion's words with clarity and warmth, makes even the hour and a half feel half an hour too long, especially since Didion's playwriting skills don't as yet include recognizing the right climax, instead of giving us at least two endings too many -- one of which is followed by Redgrave, finally released from her chair, but now tethered to The Year of Magical Thinking: The Book and actually reading from it. I wouldn't have been surprised to see a table in the lobby where audiences could buy autographed copies.

Via De La Rosa with David Hare
via De La Rosa with another actor playing Hare
The Coast of Utopia

The Year of Magical Thinking
A play by Joan Didion based on her memoir of the same name
Directed by David Hare
Cast: Vanessa Redgrave (Understudy: Maureen Anderman)
Scenic Design: Bob Crowley
Costumes: Ann Roth
Lights: Jean Kalman
Sound: Paul Arditti.
Running Time: 95 minutes without intermission
Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue, 212-239-6200
Tuesday through Saturday at 8pm, Wednesday and Saturday Matinees at 2pm.
From First Preview Date March 6, 2007 Opening 3/29/07 to 8/25/07; opening 3/29/07
Important Notice: Latecomers Will Not Be Seated.
Tickets: $96.25 to $76.25
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer on April 10th
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