The unconventional woman
And such is the underlying theme of the Almeida's production of Tom and Viv, albeit played out to a tragic end in the play about T.S. Eliot and his whirlwind first marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood. Whilst there will always be a place amongst the Radio 4 listener set for fringe, earnestly literate plays about famous, cultured people having nervous breakdowns, Michael Hasting's production opens with surprising fluidity and closes with powerful (but not overwhelming) emotion. Think One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest crossed with Iris, but without floods of tears (and I cried at Billy Elliott so take comfort).
T.S. Eliot was a classic Anglophile American, determined to become 'more English than the English' (think Madonna not yours truly; I don't do horses or the country very well). Tom passed his domestic life on automatic pilot, while his mind found refuge and flourished in the Waste Land. As he says to Viv in the first few lines of the play he finds it "an enormous effort to be trivial" with people. This Olympian diffidence, the script suggests, was sufficient to make him a source of ridicule to his in-laws ("every family needs a wild crazed sort of black sheep")-and perhaps enough to drive his wife mad.
Like Marco Pierre and his wife, Tom and Viv were prone to crash tests. Viv was a feisty, young bohemian aristocrat who was eccentric and experimenting. She was filled with a vivaciousness and charm that eventually descended into wild mood swings attributable to a severe hormonal imbalance (to which some of us can relate on a monthly basis), made tragically worse by the doctors of the time who prescribed her with alcohol and opium (so this is where they first discovered the effects of female binge drinking). Their turbulent marriage was the inspiration of some of Eliot's finest work, and despite the complex nature of their relationship he spoke of Viv as someone who gave him everything he wanted, and to whom he owed everything. (But, not to worry, the prose is definitely T.S. Eliot and not Bryan Adams.)
The first half of the play left me beguiled as to the oddness of their coupling, his Angelina to her Brad, and slightly distracted by the affected tone of speech (many an "Absolutely!" said in posh sing-song) which seemed more than a little artificial. But the play is set in the garden party environs of Oxbridge and Bloomsbury during the first half of the last century, so after a few minutes you forgive and forget.
Whilst at once a disturbing indictment of the treatment of women at the time, the most powerful moments were watching Viv in all her pugnacity try and unearth the passion of Tom the poet from beneath his mortician-like persona. Similar to what I suspect Becks undertakes trying to unlock Posh the Spice Girl from his turned morticia-like WAG.
Tom and Viv is a brilliant evening of theatre and essential viewing for any T.S. Eliot fans, for anyone interested in the study of English behaviour as well as anyone fascinated (or tormented) by unconventional women.
Runs 12 Sept- 4 Nov
Press night is 22 Sept (Friday) so no formal reviews allowed until then (that's why we have blogs). Book before for best availability.
Seats from £6-£29