Roslyn Packer Theatre, January 8
When director Lars Jan of US theatre company Early Morning Opera opted to thrust the three dozen pages of Joan Didion’s The White Album on to a stage, the famed piece of prose could have been as uncomfortable a participant as an unwilling audience member. The success or failure of this theatrical presentation of the multi-faceted farewell to the 1960s ultimately rode on finding the right voice. I don’t mean the tubes, teeth, tongue and vibrational apparatus, but a vocal representation of Didion’s singular tone.
The essayist, journalist and novelist readily acknowledges her debt to Hemmingway. Her sentences are lean and neatly clipped, and her prose crisp: acerbic without being waspish. Possibly the result of a childhood of constant family relocations, she has the distinct perspective of the outsider. She wrote about the ’60s from the epicentre of the action (sitting in on a Doors recording session; having a drink spilt on her by Roman Polanski; interviewing the Black Panthers’ Huey Newton in jail), yet did it as a detached, wry and even remote observer: much more chronicler than participant.
It fell to Mia Barron to realise Didion’s voice: to make that taut, dry prose come to life without seeming to “act”. Her success in achieving and sustaining this in such a vast role is monumental. The voice you hear in your head in reading the essay/memoir is suddenly, miraculously, the voice on stage.
Barron is largely still when she speaks. Her arms, hands and fingers emphasise without exaggerating, and her face is calm without being cold. She does just enough to keep us engaged, while ultimately letting the words do their own talking. Had she tried to “sell” the text any more than this, Didion’s wry detachment would be lost; had she understated it more, we might have nodded off.
So via Barron’s superlative performance we enter Didion’s vision of the final years of the ’60s, which is not one of aromatic flower power, so much as a jittery sensation of the ground adjacent to a volcano vibrating. Hers was never a romanticised view of what had been or could have been, but one of what actually happened with the Doors self-sabotaging their way towards a third album, with African Americans adopting a more combative response to endless oppression, with Sharon Tate and the rest being brutally murdered by Manson’s family of freaks.
The parallels with the ground trembling beneath our feet right now are unmistakable, albeit with the crucial difference that the unravelling that Didion depicts was predated by a magical innocent optimism. The current era has merely travelled the shorter road from cynicism to calamity.
So given the power of the raw material and the excellence of Barron’s performance, what stops this being a masterwork? The answer is that despite Jan’s undoubted flair and imagination, Didion’s work is not freshly illuminated in any real sense. The director uses five other actors (including the striking singing voice of Sharon Udoh reimaging the Doors’ Light My Fire), plus a clutch of young locals (termed the “inner audience”) to bulk out events. The set apparently mimics Didion’s Hollywood house, which was the grout between the mosaic tiles of her disparate anecdotes. Yet much of the movement, posturing, dancing, and overt theatricality seems extraneous and ultimately distracting from what Barron is trying to tell us. Would it work without any theatrical flourishes? No, it might be too dry. Perhaps, for all the excellence brought to bear, the piece was happier on the page.