After a successful Broadway run in 2007, Joan Didion’s play The Year Of Magical Thinking starring Vanessa Redgrave, has arrived on the London stage at the National’s Lyttelton theatre. Charlotte Marshall was in the first night audience.
After returning home from visiting their daughter in hospital, Didion’s husband, the screenwriter and novelist John Gregory, died suddenly as they were making dinner. Adapted from Didion’s best selling novel, The Year Of Magical Thinking is her memoir charting the year following this life-altering moment.
Told in meticulous detail, the play explains the inner workings of the character’s mind as grief takes its hold. In this case, as a defence mechanism she attempts to master the art of magical thinking. Explained as a primitive thought process, the character believes that if she manages to control the situation and play along with the consensus that her husband is dead, she will win the game and he will come back. Continually making deals with herself, such as keeping her daughter safe, planning the funeral and not throwing away his shoes in order that she is ready for him, she convinces herself that he will in fact return.
As the play progresses, the character’s grief follows suit, passing through different stages of emotions as she continues to fight for her daughter’s life – a situation that at times distracts her from her loss and at others intensifies it. At one point, she discusses the idea of the vortex she is sucked into if she allows herself to revisit familiar places that hold memories of her family as they were. Unable to let herself fall into this trap, she controls her grief by in turn controlling everything around her – buying medical textbooks to understand her husband’s death and daughter’s illness, even buying scrubs before she realises she has gone too far.
Speaking directly to the audience, Redgrave is alone on stage in a simple white blouse and trousers, nothing distracting from her monologue. Grey paint-streaked sheets covering the back of the stage fall one by one, changing colour as her story enters a different stage of acceptance or loss, until we are finally left with Redgrave in total darkness.
Opening with the line “It will happen to you. The details will be different, but it will happen to you”, The Year Of Magical Thinking is as unsettling as this statement suggests, but ultimately a beautifully written play that provides an intensely personal insight into one woman’s grief.