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Canberra Today 8°/10° | Monday, July 4, 2022 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Discovering the challenge of magical thinking 

Jillian Murray… “Getting back on the bike after 20 years was quite a challenge.” Photo: Jodie Hutchinson

WHEN it comes to tour-de-force acting roles, there are few parts more demanding than that in the stage version of Joan Didion’s memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking”. 

Originally performed by Vanessa Redgrave in 2007, it was staged by Cate Blanchett at the Sydney Theatre Company with Robyn Nevin in the solo role, then toured Canberra in 2009. Internationally, the play has rarely been out of production, but not so here. 

Didion adapted the play from the book in which she attempts to deal with her loss of both her husband John Gregory Dunne and adult daughter Quintana within 18-months through the use of “magical thinking”, guiding the audience through her doubt and her struggle with grief. 

In a touring production directed by Laurence Strangio, Melbourne performer Jillian Murray takes on the Didion role in a quieter, more intimate approach to the work, only its second staging in Australia, she thinks.

Murray is known as a powerful performer, but unusually, she spent a long time away from acting. 

A Melbourne University graduate who went to the UK in the ’70s to study drama at the celebrated East 15 Acting School, Murray worked in the UK, came back, performed with the Sydney Theatre Company in a 1993 production by the late George Ogilvie, then left the stage after marrying an artist and having a child.

Her next job was in 2014 she says, when she was engaged by Strangio, her present director, to perform in Marguerite Duras’ play “L’amante Anglaise”, supposedly a fly-by-night show that ended up having four seasons from 2014 to 2018, a national tour and winning her a Victorian Green Room Award.

“Getting back on the bike after 20 years was quite a challenge,” she says, attributing it entirely due to Strangio’s invitation to perform.

The success of this play led to other things, such as a production of Ionesco’s famous absurdist play, “The Chairs”, which won her another Green Room nomination.

After that there was TV series work on shows such as “Jack Irish” and later a 2019 production at the Melbourne Theatre Company of “The Lady In the Van” with Miriam Margolyes. 

Murray relates what fun it was to share a dressing room with Margolyes for six weeks – although when the actress came to dinner, she accidentally left with Murray’s dog in her car, of which she says, “that’s another story”.

“Laurence had directed me in the Duras piece and it was an exhilarating work… so he was keen to work with me again and suggested ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’,” she says.

“Initially, I was a little bit daunted… a 90-minute solo work is a huge task, but having done ‘L’amante Anglaise,’ I thought, well, why not?

“From the outset I was different from Robyn [Nevin]. I don’t do it with an American accent, for instance Jillian Murray – it’s basically a version of me.

“I suppose also because of my background and my life experience there are some elements I can strongly associate with Joan Didion’s experiences.

“You think this won’t happen to you, but it will.

“This is a small theatrical work in the way we have presented it, with the utmost simplicity. It’s ideal for touring, there’s a chair, a table and magnificent lighting.

“It’s simple and elegant, but that chair is very important… we wanted that chair to travel with, it makes a difference having a bum on a particular chair.

“Our intention is to have a conversation with the audience and it never loses touch with the audience… in one place I seem to be giving audience members tips on how to manage grief.”

They first did it at fortyfivedownstairs creative hub in Melbourne, then were asked by critical stages to tour it at the end of 2019, before covid.

“Thank goodness it has been able to stay on the boil,” Murray says, “This is a really small work in terms of its look, but I think it has vast implications in terms of its humanity.”

“The Year of Magical Thinking”, The Q, Queanbeyan, July 7-9. Book at or 6285 6290.

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Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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