Brilliant artists are not necessarily, of course, “nice” people. TS Eliot has been accused of anti-semitism, he was almost certainly a snob and might have been mean. But was he unsympathetic to his first wife’s mental illness? Did he fail to give her credit for her contribution to The Waste Land or to his magazine the Criterion?
Michael Hastings raises these questions – more clearly in his introduction to his playtext than in the play itself – but, in dramatic terms, the main interest resides in the behaviour of Vivienne Haigh-Wood, the upper-class woman Eliot married after a few months’ acquaintance during the First World War. Eliot may be the reason for writing the play, but Viv is its star.
Lindsay Posner’s production moves the action along - the scenes are often as short as for television - by the astute use of a simple set with swiftly moved chairs and tables and excellent lighting by Neil Austin. Will Keen, who can act to his nerve ends, is the buttoned-up American who soon loses any trace of an accent as he is swallowed by the British upper class he apparently admires.
Frances O'Connor, on the other hand, pulls out all the stops as Viv, exhaustingly “mad” for most of the play’s duration, jabbering hysterically, playfully “stabbing” her mother with a trick knife, hurling Tom’s possessions through doors and herself out of a car window. In the final scene, she is a sane and serious middle-aged woman listening with mild interest to an American doctor explain that her problem had been gynaecological; it was the treatment which made her appear mad. She has spent a decade in an asylum, apparently abandoned by the husband she claims still to love.
A tragedy then but, although Hastings draws attention to Eliot’s flirtation with fascism and criticises his small-minded financial concerns, Tom is no villain. A virginal outsider when he married, he seems simply unable to cope with the requirements of his wife’s emotional state, to be out of his depth among the moneyed certainties of his in-laws. Benjamin Whitrow and Anna Carteret as Viv’s parents are concerned in that distant way that upper-class, slightly bohemian families probably were.
Hastings’ 1984 text has been revised for this production. What a pity that the anachronistic term “celeb” has crept into the entertaining gentlemen’s club argot of Viv’s dim brother Maurice, played with bumbling gusto by Robert Portal.
Eliot was at pains to separate his work from “personality”, but in an age where biography has more fans than poetry, Tom and Viv is a gripping account of a marriage spiralling into despair. It may give clues to the inception of The Waste Land, but it is fascinating mainly for its portrait of love soured by illness and convention. And it is served here by exceptional performances.
- Heather Neill