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A magical actress at the top of her game

PUBLISHED: 13:18 08 May 2008 | UPDATED: 17:19 16 August 2010

Vanessa Redgrave in THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, a play by Joan Didion based on her memoir
Photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe

Vanessa Redgrave in THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, a play by Joan Didion based on her memoir Photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe

A volcanic ash grey screen, possibly suggesting a seascape, covers the front of the stage at the Lyttleton Theatre.

By Edward Martyn

A volcanic ash grey screen, possibly suggesting a seascape, covers the front of the stage at the Lyttleton Theatre. Suddenly it drops to reveal the angular figure and gaunt face of Vanessa Redgrave, now in her seventies, dressed in light coloured trousers and a severe white blouse. She advances to the front of the stage where a solitary chair, reminiscent of the deck-chairs on the Titanic is her only assistant in the quest to reveal the tragic closure to a fortunate life in upper-class America.

Joan Didion was born in California and grew up to attend university and marry a man involved in writing novels and film scripts. Joan also wrote (she was with Vogue magazine when she was twenty) and joined him in a life-long partnership, adopting a daughter, and swimming with the incoming tide off Malibu, a magical part of southern California's coastline. What could possibly go wrong with this favoured life-style?

Vanessa Redgrave not only documents the downfall of this rosy picture, but in the process delivers a master class in acting, and holds our rapt attention for 90 minutes. She totally inhabits the persona of her friend Joan and reveals a woman fatally flawed by her belief that self-action can produce desired results in every situation. (We learn how 'Magical Thinking' is an anthropoligical term and we use it to get us through tragedy and grief).

When the character's husband is dying in hospital, the cardiologist is moved to describe her as a "cool customer" when he delivers the bad news about his prognosis, but Joan is determined to 'See things straight' as she has done all her life, and insists on an autopsy (which she would like to view) so that all the facts can be revealed.

However, her composure slips when she has to go uptown to another hospital where her only child, the newly married Quintana is in a semi-coma, and find a way of breaking the awful news to her, and of course all her literary friends and the press. She stops to call the New York Times and L.A. times to make sure they get it straight, and bans television in her daughter's room until she can break the news herself.

From this moment on, her obsession is to prevent the past, and memories, or chance encounters with buildings connected with their past from sucking her into a vortex of sorrow from which there is no escape. Instead she retreats into a world of 'Magical Thinking' where she can revel in unlikely thoughts of her husband's return without the cruel realities of the outside world disturbing her.

Her daughter becomes an increasing problem, as she veers from one clinical crisis to another and finally succumbs to pancreatitis, leaving Joan utterly alone with her memories.

This may not be the best material for a play, and perhaps a radio format would be equally suitable, but if you find it in your heart to re-live the tidal wave of emotion engendered by these awful events, then book up now to experience an actress at the top of her game.

* The Year of Magical Thinking is at The Lyttleton Theatre, National Theatre, South Bank. Box office: 020 7452 3000

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