Based on the 1979 essay, Joan Didion’s The White Album covers five years in California from 1968-1972 where Didion weaves politics, crime, Hollywood celebrities, and her autobiography into a volatile portrait of paranoia and isolation. Lars Jan and Early Morning Opera introduce bodies, light, sound, and space into the words to deepen the impact and resonance of this already seminal piece.
Before the essay gets underway, Mia Barron as narrator and Joan Didion introduces the audience to the inner audience of this production, a group of twenty-something students who will help generate the atmosphere of the 60s with five other cast members (Madeline Barasch, Brad Culver, Brittany Engel-Adams, Stephanie Regina, and Sharon Udoh). They take part in a social experiment, answering questions fed into their headphones about their personal histories, as Baron begins, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
The driving force of the production stems from this opening and Didion’s desire to get to the “alchemy of issues”, to understand the how of a story in order to understand the why. She balances recounts of her sketchy neighbourhood and worsening psychological state against the Black Panther Party, the Doors, and a selection of particularly grisly crimes including the Manson Murders. Amongst the extraordinary occurrences of late 1960s California are the minutiae of Hollywood celebrities with excessive wealth and drug use contrasted with a revolutionary atmosphere developing across university campuses and grassroots organisations. Didion holds all issues up, weighing them as both evidence and symptoms of the period’s unease and dissatisfaction, unclear and out of reach.
Jan’s direction expertly maintains the cacophony of images, allowing some to grow murky while others shine through blindingly. Set design from P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S Architecture emphasises the shifting focus of the production with a large white box in which the cast can build scenes real and imagined, illustrating Didion’s words and sometimes enveloping them in real time.
Technical design from Chu-hsuan Chang and Andrew Schneider for lighting and Jonathan Snipes for sound is atmospheric and mesmerising from the subtle beats and flashes of an extreme gun fight to the pulsating colours representing Didion’s heightened psychological state. In a moment of climactic design, Barron appears atop the white box, surrounded by smoke and warm light like an apparition while a simulated lightning storm roars underneath her before giving way to a dark, dirty rainbow like a grungy allusion to oncoming relief. The integration of the technical design into the cast’s crystalline performances was sharp and worked with great effect.
Barron as the narrator is captivating as the intelligence and fragility of her performance winds into an uncomfortable tension. Barron’s physical form becomes a symbolic distillation of her intellectualising as she moves the audience through party scenes, into prisons, always within the hazy aura of the “issues”. At once she is a product of the social and political environment but also a manifestation of the distortion and disease that lead to mass paranoia at the time.
Barron is supported by five additional cast members with Sharon Udoh and Brittany Engel-Adams lending their musical and dance talents to the production for an additional lens of performative interpretation.
It is unusual to adapt an essay to the stage but Joan Didion’s The White Album does not shy away from the unusual and evocative, instead allowing the troubling atmosphere of Didion’s 1960s California to permeate, seeping into our fantasies of future revolutions.
Joan Didion’s The White Album is running at Roslyn Packer Theatre from January 8th – 12th as part of Sydney Festival