Review – The Year of Magical Thinking with Vanessa Redgrave, National Theatre

Sunday 11 May 2008

The Whingers thought this would be the one for them.

Phil only agreed to see it as he’d misread the title as The Year of Magical Drinking, and assumed he would be watching something he could relate to at last. The Whingers have spent many years drinking thus.

But thinking? That’s something they take great pains to avoid. It only leads to madness.

Very sadly,  writer Joan Didion‘s poor husband dropped dead at the dinner table apparently.

Probably from boredom if his wife was anything like Vanessa Redgrave in this thing.

Anyway, Ms Didion then wrote a book about her grief and David Hare helped make it into a play by directing it.

Well, we say “play”. It’s actually a very, very long monologue with an occasionally animated set as compensation.

Phil thought he too might expire – from ennui – in the third row of the stalls. But at least if that had happened Andrew would be unlikely to go on about it for an hour and 40 minutes. Andrew thought about it and decided he might be able to work it up into an amusing five minute anecdote but to be fair, he would hardly be grieving. In fact, when Phil suggested the notion, Andrew found himself diverted by ideas for songs to play at Phil’s funeral.

“Ding, Dong, The Witch Is Dead” sprung to mind.

Of course, it’s truly terribly sad that poor Joan Didion lost both her husband and her daughter in quick succession.

But, coincidentally, Andrew lost his house keys AND his virginity cheque book the other day and he has written a book about it which he hopes will get made into a play at some point.

But his play will have pyrotechnics, on-stage vomiting and minor characters (such as Phil) in it.

Anyway, Didion’s book apparently tapped in to the whole American self-help thing as the bible on coping with grief.

Regrettably the market for self-help books on Coping With Phil is much smaller.

But speaking of books – when Vanessa walked on to the stage carrying a copy of said book, the Whingers couldn’t help but be reminded of Mr Spacey’s complaint that I’d Do Anything is little more than the BBC giving free publicity to the forthcoming production of Oliver!

Interestingly, the programme reveals that the supposed hook for this piece of “theatre” is this early “blazing admonishment” in the text:

This happened on December 30, 2003. This may seem a while ago but it won’t when it happens to you.

And it will happen to you. The details will be different, but it will happen to you.

That’s what I’m here to tell you.

You don’t want to think it could happen to you.

Well that’s a massive dollop of solipsism. Is it not possible that some of the other people in the packed and cavernous Lyttelton auditorium have already gone through the loss of what are now known in the newspapers as “loved ones”? This is especially likely at the National Theatre. (Apparently this wasn’t added until very late on in the day. “At a stroke, the play was turned from reminiscence into lehrstück,” notes Hare in the programme notes. What was the play like before that?).

Yes, with this large audience, which encompassed a huge age range, it was statistically improbable that there might be anyone there who hadn’t experienced grief at least once in their life.

Were the audience being patronised, wondered Andrew?

But Phil had other statistical worries on his mind, at least giving him something to mull over as Redgrave droned on and on: stuck in the middle of the third row there were twelve people between him and freedom.

TYOMT is peformed without interval. Now normally this is something the Whingers advocate, but stuck in the tightly packed front rows of the Lyttelton there was little chance of escape. What were the chances that all twelve sitting to the right of Phil would feel the same way and wish to effect a premature exit?

Things were looking promising. The woman immediately to Phil’s right was sighing audibly and spent more than half the play reading her programme: surely she wanted out?

It wasn’t to be. As the play eventually ground to a halt many in the auditorium rose to their feet to give Redgrave a standing ovation. And this woman (who probably heard even less of the piece than the snoozing Andrew a few feet away from her) was up on her feet ovating with the rest of them. Ah, good old National Theatre audiences.

Interestingly, when Redgrave came on to drink in the applause she extended her arms, palms-out – towards the audience. Was this acknowledging the audience’s brilliance or a subliminal invitation to ovate?

But let us go back to the set (by Bob Crowley): a water-colour backdrop behind Redgrave’s solitary chair. Every now and then a cloth would drop, neatly disappearing into the stage to reveal another cloth subtly different from the last. But so subtle were these changes that they didn’t seem to indicate any change of mood or pace (probably because there was little change of mood or pace). It seemed a pointless exercise. Weren’t Didion’s words enough to keep the audience interested?

Strangely the whole thing was completely unmoving. It shouldn’t have been that way. Didion’s story is tragic, and the book (so the Whingers are told) is a well-written and moving analysis of grief. Perhaps Redgrave has been doing it too long (it opened on Broadway in March 2007) as she seemed to be doing it by numbers. Her American accent is pretty ropey and you never felt she had any real passion for the words she was spouting.

Perhaps the problem is simply that it’s not the English way of grief to talk about it. As Victoria Wood puts it (from memory): “When a man dies in India, the widow throws herself onto the funeral pyre. Here it’s just “72 baps, Connie. You slice, I’ll spread”.

6 Responses to “Review – The Year of Magical Thinking with Vanessa Redgrave, National Theatre”

  1. webcowgirl Says:

    Well! I was considering seeing this but the number of one person shows I’ve seen and enjoyed was so small that I’d really been waffling. Thanks for saving me the pain. And yes, Andrew, I’m afraid you were being pandered to. (I feel obliged to mention the one show in question was Venus as a Boy as I’ve seen so little said about it and it was just pure genius, even without an interval. Joan could only hope to do so well as the wrinkled actor in thrift store costumes I saw portraying a hot young male prostitute … convincingly.)

    Really, is it time for us to go into writing? How hard is it to produce a good evening at the theater? That said, based on your recent track record, I’d say nearly zero …

  2. Jmc Says:

    The National Theatre being patronising in its programmes? Who’d have thunk it!


  3. Kate Bassett made the same point in her Independent on Sunday review: “well, we’re not dumb. We know that!” But the point is that we don’t; we never really know until it happens to us. In fact, the point of the book and play are that, as Didion shows, sometimes we don’t know even when it has happened or is happening to us. Reacting to that as if it were patronising says more about us than about the attempt to get us to realise.

    me, I spent more than half the play in my own thoughts rather than listening of the details of Didion’s account or watching the minutiae of Redgrave’s performance. But I don’t think that was due to deficiencies there, rather that I’d been led into reflecting on my own case. Isn’t that part of what good theatre does – show us ourselves?

    Hooters.

    Sorry, just realised it had been a humourless post so I thought a tit reference might help things along🙂


  4. @ Ian – what we were trying to say way was not “we know that” but “how do you know we don’t know that?”- how do you know we haven’t been through your experience. Of course, we haven’t but the certainty with which we were told we hadn’t was really rather off-putting.

    “I’d been led into reflecting on my own case. Isn’t that part of what good theatre does – show us ourselves?”

    Dear god! What a thought! Doesn’t bear thinking about.

    Now please stop putting us on the rack.

  5. Tim Says:

    Director David Hare’s dithyramb on this piece’s “blazing admonishment”, and its “lehrstuck” quality, is typical of the subsidised theatre’s sanctimonious hectoring of its audience.

    Normal people do not require “admonishment” from some neurotic American authoress, or a leftist theatre-director, on how to cope with bereavement.

    However, as the Whingers note, the National Theatre audience seems prepared to turn up for this kind of punishment — no doubt since self-flagellation went out of fashion.


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