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A CurtainUp London Review
Tom and Viv
Starring the brilliant Frances O’Connor as the troubled Vivienne Haigh-Wood, Lindsay Posner’s production is always interesting if still controversial. But then, when do the warring partners in a failing marriage ever agree about what actually took place? Much of Michael Hasting’s source was Maurice Haigh-Wood, Vivienne’s brother.
Tom and Viv describes the marriage of T S Eliot (Will Keen). It starts in 1915 when, as a philosophy student at Oxford, he met the vivacious if mercurial Vivienne Haigh-Wood (Frances O’Connor). They were married without the knowledge of her family and the play looks at their marriage in detail. Eliot is soon accepted as a member of the family by Vivi’s protective mother Rose (Anna Carteret), her nice but dim soldier brother Maurice (Robert Portal) and her eccentric painter father Charles (Benjamin Whitrow). There are sexual tensions in the marriage which may have been unconsummated and also money worries. Tom and Vivi live in Bertrand Russell’s flat near the British Museum and mix with the literary Bloomsbury set, people like Virginia Woolf and Lady Ottiline Morell. Eliot is helped into a job in a bank by Mr Haigh-Wood until he is able to make his living in the publishing house, Faber. Eliot leaves Vivi to take a job in American and eventually in 1935 Vivienne is committed to a "genteel sanatorium" where she dies in 1947.
It is clear that Vivienne, although very pretty, animated and bright is also impossible to live with. She is unstable and unpredictable. Tom is seen initially as awkward and lacking in social graces and rather odd. We hear that Vivienne had, "the best Cockney accent in Tunbridge Wells" and there is description of her entertaining her brother’s friends at an all male English public school, Malvern, by doing cartwheels when she penetrated the establishment dressed as a man! I couldn’t watch this play without feeling a certain amount of sympathy for Tom Eliot, although he is, on the surface, the least attractive of the play’s protagonists. Vivi says that she married Tom to escape her family, only to find that he subsequently embraces many of their values and Englishness.
Will Keen is excellent as the reticent Eliot, who converted to Anglo-Catholicism, occasionally shows a nasty streak as in his complete contempt for his blundering brother in law’s lack of intellect and education. Robert Portal’s Maurice is sympathetic although we cannot help but laugh at his stupidity. Anna Carteret as Rose is a loving mother who doesn’t know how to contain her daughter’s excesses of behaviour and refuses to acknowledge the extent of Vivi’s illness. But the acting credits go to Frances O’Connor for an astonishing performance as the highly strung Vivi. What she manages is to pitch much of Vivi as over the top, brittle, noisy and destructive but to also show her in calm sorrow. Vivi’s mother gets the bill for the damage to the room in the honeymoon hotel room in Eastbourne, where Vivi set the curtains on fire. After Tom has left her, in an episode that might be called stalking today, she pours melted chocolate through the letter box at Fabers drowning several valuable manuscripts. You see Tom loved chocolate and this was how the crazed Vivienne tried to please him. But Frances O’Connor also conveys moments of tenderness and despair at being married to a man who cannot demonstrate physical love. Both are frustrated and unfulfilled, as Eliot says later, "We had turned fugitive to one another." Keen is deliberately cruel to her when he reads a letter from Betrand Russell. The famous philosopher went away on an illicit weekend with Mrs Eliot and then wrote to his friend Eliot telling him why no adultery took place, because of Russell’s concerns about Vivi’s mental health. There are scenes when Tom and Vivi sparkle together, two clever people, in particular where they compose letters from fictitious readers for the page of The Criterion magazine.
Giles Cadle’s set sees the players act between a circular floor of wooden parquet and a matching wooden circle suspended above, trapping them like the filling in a circular, wooden Edwardian sandwich.
Michael Hastings’ play has many very funny lines and often it is poor Maurice who is the butt of the humour with his old fashioned, polite ineptitudes. He attempts to empathise with Tom whose wit is as sharp and accurate as Maurice’s is dim. In the final scenes set in the asylum in the late 1940s, an American doctor interviews a calm and sane Vivi who has not seen her husband for twelve years. The doctor’s conclusion is that she was intoxicated by the drugs given to her to supposedly control her behaviour.
Does the play condemn Thomas Stearns Eliot for needlessly putting away his wife in a lunatic asylum? Not really. It is obvious that Vivi was unhinged, whether because she was mentally ill or a victim of her drugs. What we need to read are T S Eliot’s letters about this period of his life, if his widow Valerie allows us access to them. Here Eliot’s letter to his father written in 1915 reproduced from the Almeida programme, "Now that we have been married a month I am convinced that she has been the one person for me. She has everything to give that I want, and she gives it. I owe her everything. I have married her on nothing, and she knows it. And was willing for my sake. She had nothing to gain by marrying me."
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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