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Eerily beautiful show reveals frustrating fragmentation of writers classic essay

First published in 1979, The White Album, Joan Didions collection of essays and journalism about the 1960s, has become a modern classic of New Journalism.

Didion uses a highly stylised cadence and a fragmented, mosaic style of storytelling to illustrate the times. But her voice is also a metaphor: language breaks down, the world is breaking down, shes having a breakdown.

This is the second of Didions landmark works to be taken to the stage, the first being The Year of Magical Thinking a memoir about the death of her husband which opened on Broadway in 2007.

The White Album is a tougher proposition. While the theme of Didions book is the search for and failure to find a narrative, on the stage, this failure of narrative can be disorienting and unsatisfying for theatregoers.

Which is perhaps the point.

The director Lars Jan and the Early Morning Opera have brought The White Album to the stage after almost eight years of trying to obtain the rights. They eventually secured them with the promise to Didion that the text of the books first, eponymous essay would be performed in its entirety. We promised to do every word. We werent going to cut anything we were going to start with the first word and end with the last, Jan said in an interview.

The fragmented scenes take a form like chapters and cover Didions perspective on key moments during the late 60s. Photograph: Lars Jan/Sydney festival

The first words of that essay We tell ourselves stories in order to live have become famous in their own right and, when delivered on stage by the actor and co-creator Mia Barron, they produce chills.

The fragmented scenes take a form like chapters and cover Didions perspective on key moments during the late 60s the trial of Huey Newton, a Doors recording session, the San Francisco State College student protests and the Manson murders as well as her own psychiatric assessment and the packing list she uses when shes on assignment.

It is essentially a monologue Barron reciting the wordy text from memory broken up with asides or quotes from a Greek chorus of hippies, protesters, musicians and activists, played in large part by members of the audience, led by surreptitious instructions fed through earpieces, who volunteered beforehand to be part of the show. Jan has also previously said that it was not necessary for Barron to actually embody Didion: She is using the words of the text to create a character, to speak those words instinctively, he said.

Mia Barron, second from left, inside the glass house. Photograph: Reed Hutchinson/Sydney festival

But it can take a bit to reset expectations about character. Didions writing like her persona can be aloof (she is famously described as a cool customer by a hospital social worker in The Year of Magical Thinking). When I met her once in New York, she exuded a frostiness and imperviousness that was highly intimidating, an effect heightened perhaps because she is so physically slight.

Barrons narrator is a more substantial, earthy presence, appearing more relatable and solid than the real-life Didion, who in the text is in the process of a crack-up; in her perpetual motion between New York, California, Hawaii and reporting trips to various cities, she is herself yet another metaphor for a country in which the centre cannot hold.

The music and stagecraft of this production enhance the apocalyptic late 60s vibe. A stark, modular, literal glass house dominates the stage. Designed by P-A-T-T-E-R-N-S architectural firm, it is a stand-in for the recording studio in which Didion met the Doors; her house on Franklin Avenue, Hollywood; student campuses; and finally, a bloody shootout. But despite the eerie beauty of the staging, seeing one of my favourite essays performed in this way revealed flaws I had not seen in the text before.

Didion is the master of cadence, creating a lyrical power in her mesmerising arrangement of words, but she has no discipline or focus. Characters slide in and out, and stories that would have enriched our understanding of the times remain, frustratingly, only partly told. The fragments when performed together do not make a whole, and she is its unstable centre.

Then there are the times we are living through now. During the performance, I couldnt help but contrast Didions times with now. From within, our times seem to be even more chaotic, fragmentary and evil than Didions 60s. Weve lost any illusion we had of a centre not least, of a centre that can hold. Weve long been without a narrative. Perhaps, if Didion is right, there never was a narrative to begin with.

Joan Didions The White Album is at Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, as part of Sydney festival until 12 January

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