Pictures: Lungelo Mbulwana
It took someone the quality of writer Joan Didion to get actor Dorothy Ann Gould and director Mark Graham Wilson together for a stage production following their much-acclaimed Hello and Goodbye with her husband Michael Maxwell, a decade ago. They speak to DIANE DE BEER about The Year of Magical Thinking that opens on March 9 and runs until April 1 at The Market’s Barney Simon Theatre in Joburg:
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
Thus begins the American writer Joan Didion’s haunting memoir of the year following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. The unexpected event ended a partnership of 40 years in a second, just days after their only child, Quintana, had fallen dangerously ill and slipped into a coma.
During Didion’s New York promotion of the recently published memoir, Quintana became seriously ill again. Following massive brain surgery, she died. She was 39.
Following these catastrophic events, it was the famed director David Hare who asked Didion to change her memoir into a play and six months after her second tragedy, the death of her daughter, she began working on the play. This time she was dealing with both the death of her partner and her daughter – a double tragedy.
Both director and actor knew this was the play that would embolden their stage partnership. It is said that The Year of Magical Thinking is a journey through that most universal experience of human pain: bereavement. And while it is frequently harrowing, it is also often amusing and, ultimately has been described as an expression of the power love has to give life meaning. All of that describes the remarkable writer Joan Didion and that is what struck both Graham Wilson and Gould.
How much can one person take? That’s the question Gould asked herself when reading the memoir. “We all cope differently,” she acknowledges but we all encounter these kinds of tragedies at some point in our lives.
It is the way Didion thinks, the way she escapes, the way she writes that makes this such a harrowing yet healing experience and just thinking about Gould and Graham Wilson tackling this depth of feeling is exciting. Watching them work, the detail and thought that goes into every breath, the way they battle one another to get to the truth, is extraordinary and the stuff theatre is made of.
“It’s the scale of the mountain of loss that’s daunting,” says Gould as she wonders about Didion’s husband’s death who she believes just “let go of the fence,” because he couldn’t cope with the sadness of his daughter’s coma. “Some people do that, and I think he told Joan that he was going, he warned her. But she wasn’t listening.” Gould was also affected by the ordinary circumstances in which tragedy occurs hence the opening stanzas of this marvelous text.
“She goes on a big journey with this lament but because she’s deprecating and wry, it is bearable to witness,” is how Gould explains it. She talks for example about the games Didion plays with her mind to cope, something we will all recognize.
How often do we not wish for a different outcome when we go to sleep and hoping for comfort when we wake up? “Joan wills things to turn around, believes she can shift reality with her strong will,” says Gould. We all recognise those games we play with the universe.
For Graham Wilson, one of the joys of the text is the perfection. “There’s not a word you want to cut, not a word out of place,” he says. Gould at the time we were speaking was still worried about remembering her words because we are speaking solo performance and 62 pages of monologue.
But we’re also dealing with someone who knows how to work through tough situations. She started memorizing the text earlier than she would have normally because she knew how important it was to get this one to a point where she didn’t even have to think about what she was saying.
It’s all in the text. The tension is held in what is being said, notes Graham Wilson, and as importantly being left unsaid. That was why every word is so important. “It isn’t a conventional play,” he acknowledges, but that is why this pairing is so valuable. Both these artists are risk takers, daring with their art and pushing the boundaries. Gould feels safe with Graham Wilson because they have worked successfully together before and that allows her to step beyond her comfort zone – to the benefit of audiences.
For Graham Wilson returning to stage after many years in the television world of soapies where he has been in the writing side because of family commitments and financial stability, this project is terrifying – but in the best sense of the word. “It’s such an exposed world,” he says of the stage. And he regards himself as very private. He likes being out of sight, but working in live theatre changes that.
To watch these two experienced artists work, delve into the work, manage every movement, every thought, how something should be placed, when she should turn and how to connect with her audience, is quite something. It’s an exciting and beautiful play written by a woman who has an extraordinary ability to express her deepest feelings in a most unusual fashion.
Gould in her own way has all those qualities on a different level and that’s why this is such a heavenly match. With Graham Wilson as her guide, her star gazer, the two of them will make theatre magic. All the ingredients are there – and this is not above expectation.
“I have to channel her energy of thought,” says Gould about the process.
This is only the second day of rehearsal and already they’re grappling with meaning and movement – the words flowing as if they come from the actress herself.
And she takes flight.