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Review: The White Album at Roslyn Packer Theatre

Review By Margaret Thanos

Joan Didion’s The White Album presented as part of the Sydney Festival at the Roslyn Packer Theatre is a beautiful portrayal of one of Didion’s most seminal essays. Presented by Lars Jan and the Early Morning Opera, Joan Didion’s remarks on the period of change that was the 1960s resounded closely with its 2020 audience. 

Didion published The White Album in 1979 and is a composite of other articles that she had previously published in publications such as The New York Times, Life and Esquire. It chronicles major revolutionary events of the sixties and the events of her life, mainly set in California, USA. Didion writes on The Black Panther movement, the Manson murders and the Summer of Love. 

Mia Barron’s carries much of the performance, delivering each word that Didion wrote in a  paced and clear delivery that was continually engaging throughout the entire piece. She connected to the work in a way that emphasised the detached nature of Didion’s writing. Her delivery was not over the top or patronising to its audience, but so simple that Didion’s language spoke for itself. I felt that I could close my eyes and picture every moment that Didion was describing, despite having never lived through the period. 

The piece is mosaic like, and director Lars Jan transforms this one woman delivery into a series of beautiful images through the use of an inner or onstage audience. A group of 18-25 year olds followed instructions delivered to them through earpieces. It was evident that they were having a distinctly different experience of Didion’s work and the performance than I was, which instantly caused a sense of mystery around the entire performance. This group of audience members was used to create big ensemble-like images in a spontaneous way. Each group of audience members would bring with it a different energy. 

Occasionally however, I did find the split focus between the chorus images and Mia Barron’s delivery was distracting or difficult to follow. Didion’s language is so rich, that sometimes I didn’t need the activation of space to carry me through. I could get lost in Barron’s delivery and not want to be distracted from it. 

The large glass box created by P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S Architecture combined with the lighting design by sChu-hsuan Chang and Andrew Schneider’s allowed for an eclectic mix of atmospheres to be presented in the piece, reflective of the time that Didion was describing. 

Brittany Engel-Adams’ movement performance and Sharon Udoh’s vocals were also pitch perfect contributions to the more dire and gloomy moments of the piece .

Nevertheless, while occasionally confusing, I believe this split focus was reflective of Didion’s overall state of mind while writing the piece. Didion continually reflects on her inability to be fully present or invested in the narrative of her own life, and this split focus meant that I also couldn’t be fully present for either element. I was experiencing a myriad of events simultaneously. 

The post-show conversation, described as “a quaker meeting on incendiary themes”, perfectly encapsulated the effect that Didion’s words had at their time. Older and younger generations came together in that conversation and debated whether anything had indeed changed since the 60s and 70s. It was commented upon that the issues that Didion wrote about still felt so relevant to today. At a time of such global crisis, the fear in the room was reflective of Didion’s own journey attempting to find the silver lining to the death of the sixties. 

Joan Didion’s The White Album is a beautifully delivered mirage of a period. Each image was clearly thought out and effective. The multi-faceted work brought together each element to remain true to Didion’s words. It was distinctly different from reading the essays on a page, as it lured me into the mindset of Didion at this time. It is a work that provokes thought, but is not for the answer seeker. Didion can provide no answers to the questions and issues that she raises, but the piece does do something more powerful than this - and that is provoke discussion. 

Image Supplied

All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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