The stage adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking is a one-woman show, mostly played out against a succession of muted (dare one say Fahriesque?) painted backdrops. It is a faithful adaptation of Didion's recent book about her double bereavement, both her husband and daughter dying within a short space of time.
Vanessa Redgrave plays Didion, bringing to life a languid, intellectually pre-possessed soul, on the point of having her life torn to pieces. The piece is a hundred minutes of Redgrave talking, and it never flags.
There's something unlikely about great stage acting. Whereas screen acting hides the illusion - the audience swallows the actor as character from the word go - stage acting cannot and great stage actors don't try to. Rather, they let the illusion gradually creep up and then smother the audience, like a magician walking on stage and announcing what they're going to do in advance of doing it. The opening moments of Redgrave's performance don't make any attempt to shy away from the obvious questions. Where does Redgrave end and Didion begin? Is that accent believable? Will she be able to pull off 'being an American' for a hundred minutes with nothing but a chair and some lights to sustain her? However, these opening skirmishes are over almost before they've begun, and from then on Redgrave and Didion not only appear to have fused into a single entity, she/ they also hold the audience in the palm of their hands. Having established her mastery, she can play with the audience at will.
This is reflected in a secondary aspect of the performance. Redgrave's masterclass in acting is instructive. She uses all the tricks in the book. There are points when you might almost be inclined to call her performance hammy. Her fierce eye picks out and hones in on audience members, never scared to vault the fourth wall. She drops her head into her hands, shaking, then cackles at her own joke. In screen acting terms, this would be seen as mannered. But on stage, the actress uses these techniques to widen the demonstrative power of her emotional range. So when she needs to howl lines of raw grief, and then surf those lines back to some connective, humorous or insightful note, to reconnect with the audience, the extremities she can access not only seem convincing, they seem absolutely accurate. In life, humans are self-indulgent, mannered, demonstrative, passionate, furious, eye-rolling and all the rest. The trick is to allow art to represent this life without appearing to be milking it for effect, a trick which only the bravest of actors can achieve without resorting to under-playing.
The audience rose to applause Redgrave at the show's curtain call, and for once it felt warranted. This is a now elderly woman tearing her heart and soul out on stage as she wrestles with the cruelty of the gods; but doing so with humour and grace. Of course, this is where the Redgrave/ Didion fusion owes as much to the writer as the actress. Didion's lucid prose stood out from amongst the welter of essayists who tried to depict the chaotic energy of that brief Prague Spring when the USA's counter-culture managed to ask real questions about the direction in which its society was heading. Didion displayed a childlike, exteriorised perspective, married to a fierce and evident intelligence, that allowed her not merely to observe in muted wonder, terror, or awe, but also to convey to an audience how her observations came to be formed.
Forty years later, she brings the same detached, personal eye to the death of both husband and daughter, and the process and working of grief itself. Grief, she constantly reminds her audience, is not something you can ever fully understand, until you are within its possession. This is a letter from that side of the fence. However, as much as its a letter to us, it is, like all great writing, also a letter to its author, a bridge across time. Towards the end of the piece, Redgrave/ Didion notes that there comes a time when you have to let the dead go; when they cease to be a living presence and begin to become a picture on a mantelpiece. The period of grief is both a time of fighting this process, and also a time of coming to terms with an acceptance of this process. In writing about this period of her life, before she's let her dead go, Didion clings to the time when the dead were not dead, when they were alive and safe; with her presence a guarantee of that safety.
Finally, The Year of Magical Thinking reveals, oncemore, that secret of theatre which is so often forgotten by performers, producers and audiences. The word entertainment is bandied around as though it meant something. In its quest to entertain, theatre all to often condescends, squeals, wriggles, jumps, shouts, turns tricks which should be never be seen on a stage. When, in fact, people don't go to the theatre to be entertained. They go there to discover something, to be told something. Entertainment is secondary. A process that was once known as storytelling. Redgrave on stage at the National might as well be Redgrave, or Didion, sitting with you round a fire, illuminated by flame and star, with no more action than her lips moving. Which is plenty to keep us occupied for an hour and a half of our brief lives, to leave us walking away feeling like we have achieved something ourselves, through the understanding which the speaker has communicated to our privileged ear.