- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 1, 2007

LONDON — Vanessa Redgrave is intense — on stage, screen or living-room sofa. It can be intimidating in an interview, but it’s the quality Joan Didion sought for the starring role in the Broadway adaptation of “The Year of Magical Thinking,” her best-selling memoir of the aftermath of her husband’s sudden death.

“She says I have an emotional intensity that they all thought was the right quality,” Miss Redgrave says.

It’s a quality that’s evident immediately in person. Miss Redgrave doesn’t do small talk. She speaks seriously and thoughtfully, both down-to-earth and wary.

Gray hair pulled back, wearing a simple V-neck sweater and slacks, she sits in the small front room of her surprisingly modest west London apartment, amid comfortable domestic clutter — shelves scattered with photographs of her children, ornaments and awards, shelves stacked with books. Miss Didion is there, of course, alongside Harold Pinter, John LeCarre, James Ellroy, Noam Chomsky, Orhan Pamuk.

As she answers questions, she searches for analogies, challenges premises, dismisses what she sees as over-generalizations. She doesn’t want to talk, for example, about the differences between acting for stage and screen.

“They’re completely different things,” she says. “It’s like saying, do you find an orange more satisfying than an apple? Both are delicious, or a big disappointment.”

Having just turned 70, Miss Redgrave is one of Britain’s most eminent actresses, anchor of a thespian dynasty that includes her late father Michael Redgrave, siblings Corin and Lynn Redgrave, and daughters Natasha and Joely Richardson. Four decades of film roles range from Michelaneglo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up”— which made her an icon of 1960s cool — to the recently released “Venus” and the forthcoming adaptation of Ian McEwan’s “Atonement.”

She’s been nominated six times for Academy Awards, winning in 1977 for “Julia.” Her last Broadway appearance, as morphine-addicted matriarch Mary Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” won her a best-actress Tony Award in 2003.

Along with her acting, she’s a longtime socialist and social activist, a UNICEF goodwill ambassador whose membership in small, far-left groups such as the Workers Revolutionary Party has made headlines over the years and left her with a mistrust of the press.

Today, though, she doesn’t want to talk about politics. She wants to talk about theater, language and Miss Didion’s book, a remorseless depiction of a journey through grief.

“Joan says it’s about survival,” Miss Redgrave says. “She has said she meant it as a manual for survival. And human beings survive through all sorts of processes, including needing to laugh.”

As a result, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” she says, “isn’t grim. It’s tragic, but it isn’t grim.”

Miss Didion — a novelist, a playwright and, most famously, a journalist — applies the forensic intelligence that illuminated the ‘60s counterculture in her book “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and U.S.-Cuban entanglement in “Miami” to her own bereavement.

On Dec. 30, 2003, Miss Didion’s husband of 40 years, writer John Gregory Dunne, died of a heart attack, at home over dinner — just before the salad, while talking about Scotch, or World War I, Miss Didion can’t remember exactly which. “John was talking,” she writes, “then he wasn’t.”

In the aftermath of his death, which coincided with the serious, and ultimately fatal, illness of the couple’s only daughter, Miss Didion describes the mundane minutiae of death: the hospital, the funeral, the bundling-up of clothes for a charity store.

Outwardly, she copes. “A pretty cool customer,” a social worker says of her.

Inwardly, she acknowledges, her thoughts are “demented,” in ways most people will recognize. She avoids driving by any location likely to stir a memory, but finds everything leads to a vortex of remembrance. She cannot bring herself to give away her husband’s shoes — he will need them, part of her reasons, when he comes back.

“I was thinking as small children think,” Miss Didion writes, “as if my thoughts or wishes had the power to reverse the narrative, change the outcome.”

Playwright David Hare, who directs Miss Redgrave in the stage version, has said the author’s book is “almost like a detective story in which the mystery is, ‘How the hell do I find a way to suffer less?’ ”

Miss Didion says Miss Redgrave was the only performer she wanted for the role. Her “emotional intensity and honesty” made her perfect casting, “coupled with her absolute control.”

“I think we all shared the sense she could hold the stage alone in a way no one else could,” Miss Didion wrote in an e-mail to Associated Press.

Miss Redgrave, for her part, sees herself as “a conduit” for Miss Didion’s words.

“My goal is to, as a solo voice and as the shadow of the writer, be a sort of freeway for whoever comes to listen and watch, to get all that she’s written,” the actress says.

“I am perhaps more like that tradition that was the only way of conveying a story or a poem for thousands of years — I’m the speaker. There are different words for that in different countries, different cultures, but that’s how stories and poems were conveyed — whether it’s Euripides’ ‘Hecuba’ or Joan Didion’s ‘Magical Thinking.’ ”

She likens Miss Didion’s writing to “photographs of the mind. Very complex and very simple at the same time.”

Or, she says, like sitting in the doctor’s office, “and he brings up on the screen what the computer imagists have found and have taken out in order to highlight — the interior of a limb. And it’ll turn around and you can see it: north, south, east, west, inside, outside.

“It’s a kind of a miracle when you see it,” Miss Redgrave says. “And I feel exactly the same about Joan’s book.”

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