In her memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion wrote that she wished she had a “cutting room, equipped with an Avid, a digital editing system on which [she] could touch a key and collapse the sequence of time”. She believed that this software, in partnership with her words, would allow her to bring different memories to the audience at once, allowing them to pick their own understanding of their meaning and values. Director Annie Fraser, by casting three actresses in the role of Joan, as opposed to the usual one, turned the Cellar theatre into a sort of “cutting room.”
The “cutting room” was fashioned from a series of Didions – reading, making tea, writing, all the while dipped in the remnants of trauma. The play itself, submerged in the complex experience of coming to terms with death, sees Joan coming to terms with her husband, John’s death from a sudden coronary event, and the subsequent death of her adopted daughter Quintana. A mess of contemplations, time didn’t pass in a linear fashion – marginal differences emerged when scenes seemed to blend into one, and the three disparate representations of Didion each cast off a slightly different light.
Emily Suine, in a spick and span apron, tried to convince me that she couldn’t throw out John’s shoes because he’d need them when he got back. Eli Biernoff-Giles,in a threadbare jumper, tacitly acknowledged reality by holding a photograph for just moments too long. Daisy Semmler, garbed in black, made all too clear that this process of grieving “will happen to [us].” All of them were Joan. The delineations between their heart-rending performances weren’t sharp but rather “mudgy” – one at times could be playing the other, and the other. Fraser and the cast, I think, realised this, and the play was all the better for it – one does not simply pass through three stages of grief – it is constant, but ever so slightly varied.
What of the “cutting room” itself? Homely would be the word to describe it, but still, it felt strangely empty. I thought someone might come in and sit down in the worn armchair at the far end of the room next to the reading light, but no one ever did. An indented cushion on the couch looked quite lonesome. There were too many books strewn about for one person – even Joan Didion.
Then came the vortex. The score swelled, lights flashed. Joan told us about a book that she wrote, then about Quintana putting a seedpod up her nose when she was three, and finally, about John telling her about the nibbling ducks at Life Magazine. Then the swell changed. It was time to go, we all felt. I walked outside. It was just an ordinary night, but I couldn’t help feeling a little changed.