The Year of Magical Thinking

A too beautiful mourning

Vanessa Redgrave brings radiance to Joan Didion's account of her disarray after the deaths of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and their daughter

Susannah Clapp
Sunday May 4, 2008
The Observer

The Year of Magical Thinking
Lyttelton, London SE1

On 30 December 2003 the screenwriter and novelist John Gregory Dunne was by the fireside of his apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side. He and his wife of 40 years, the writer Joan Didion, had just got back from visiting their daughter, Quintana, in hospital. Didion was preparing a salad; Dunne was having a whisky and looking at a book about the origins of the First World War. They were chatting. And then Dunne stopped talking, in mid-flow, arrested by a massive heart attack. Didion at first thought he was joking. Later that evening he was pronounced dead.

We know all this because Didion wrote it down. With the clarity she has brought as a journalist to political conventions, she itemised the physical circumstances of her husband's dying: the syringes left by the paramedics who tried to revive him; the Metropolitan Museum card he was carrying; the hospital social worker who summed her up as 'a pretty cool customer'. With a novelist's delicacy, she chronicled the derangement caused by sorrow: the rational reporter found herself making illogical wagers with fate, bargaining with destiny as if, by performing various rites of her own devising, events could be reversed, and the dead brought back to life. The resulting book, The Year of Magical Thinking, is crisp, and wry about her own disarray. It was a bestseller, and taken up as a bereavement manual: one reviewer declared, 'I cannot imagine dying without this book'. Eighteen months after Dunne's death, the couple's 39-year-old daughter, who had survived a series of medical emergencies, died of pancreatitis.

This stage version of The Year of Magical Thinking, adapted by Didion herself and already seen on Broadway, is the story of these two deaths and their survivor. It's a monologue, spoken by Vanessa Redgrave, statuesque and so totally different from the sparrow-like Didion that she is exempt from any charge of imitation. It's directed by David Hare, who has himself supplied a memorable monologue about the Middle East, and who returns to the National after an absence of some four years: he thought the theatre should have expanded its sold-out run of Stuff Happens. It's already a hot ticket. Yet in turning from page to stage, Didion's account has dropped in intensity and precision. It has turned from confession to performance. It has become a tour de force.

Some diminution was probably inevitable. Spoken aloud under spotlights, addressed to an audience, rather than revolved secretly in the mind, this magical thinking is exposed to rational scrutiny. It looks less potent, less likely to ensnare a sceptical mind. What is a prayer on the page becomes more like a sermon on the stage. Things glanced at in the book get spelt out on the boards. Accidental moments of peculiar humour, when Didion catches herself in an absurd assumption, begin to sound wilful. She hears a literary agent lining up her husband's obituaries, and catches herself wondering whether in Los Angeles, hours behind New York, John Gregory Dunne really is dead. That's plausible as a woozy thought (or perhaps as an Einsteinian edict); as a pronouncement, it sounds like a feeble joke.

There are other difficulties. Vanessa Redgrave - probably the most beautiful human being on the London stage - can't help touching this mourning tale with radiance. As she looks back on family life - Christmas in Honolulu with leis draped over the computers, the Malibu beaches, the boarding of a plane to Europe barefoot - luminosity keeps breaking through. She turns a compulsive repetition of the facts about dying into a marital eulogy.

By the standards of Redgrave's non-stop rippling expressiveness, this is mill-pond acting, but in comparison to Didion's prose, it is like a waterfall. Redgrave - perched, in grey trousers, on a nicely designed wooden chair - mutters at a rate of knots. Every change of mood is marked by a switch in tone or the level of voice. When she talks about a frontal assault on self-pity, she clenches her fists to her breasts; she can't resist miming a vortex. She pulls loose her scrunched-up hair; she swings her wrist inside a significant bangle; she jabs her finger at the audience; she hardly moves across the stage, yet her face is scarcely ever still.

Every small thing is beautiful; this is high-voltage good taste. As is Bob Crowley's design: a beautiful series of abstract backdrops, which succeed each other like a series of dove-grey and charcoal waves, ending in a snowdrift of white, and a tent of black. Both chic and bleak, it cleverly suggests both a state of mind and an interior design.

Didion's play wants to go beyond this, and make her history universal. 'The details will be different but it will happen to you,' she says at the beginning of this play. That's not true. It's the details - as Didion's own journalism shows - that count. There is no 'it' without them. This isn't an exemplary tale: it's a personal one. Not every woman finds she can't get rid of her husband's shoes because 'he would need shoes if he was to return'. Hardly anyone thinks of grief, as she does, as 'a place none of us know until we reach it', because most people don't think of grief as an architectural opportunity but rather as a terrible eruption. Not everyone thinks, as she does, that the bereaved look different - raw and fragile. Most of the bereft walk around terrifyingly unblemished.

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