I’m dying to meet the Yank. Every family needs a wild, crazed sort of black sheep.” So says Maurice of his new brother-in-law. The line wins a laugh, not only because Maurice is an affable chump, but because the description of Tom — aka T.S. Eliot — is so staggeringly wide of the mark. We already know the poet to be pensive and chilly and we’re only two scenes into the play. That’s worryingly early to have such a fixed view of the central character. But director Lindsay Posner appears determined to nail down everyone as firmly as possible, leaving little room for development.
Although the poet and his wife get equal billing in the title of Michael Hastings’ 1984 bio-drama, there’s an imbalance in the play, which charts the fraught and overwrought marriage of American emigre Eliot to upper-class Vivienne Haigh-Wood.
Running chronologically from a scene of hurried courtship through their shared lives to Viv’s long-term incarceration and death in an asylum, we are presented with the story of two people struggling to understand one other against overwhelming odds. Viv suffers from an undiagnosed gynecological condition that drives her to distraction and them both to the emotional abyss.
Depending on one’s point of view, Viv’s family sought to protect or stifle her because she was either ill or a serious embarrassment. But in Posner’s dogged production, there’s little doubt where he and Hastings ultimately want auds’ sympathies to be — and it’s not with Tom.
From his first moment on stage, Will Keen shows Tom’s awkwardness. He trembles in awe of the devil-may-care behavior of Viv (Frances O’Connor). He’s equally nervous — and increasingly drained and exhausted — in front of her parents. Likewise, it seems, at most times during their marriage, as Viv grows increasingly flamboyant while sliding further and further off the rails.
This physicalization so vividly underlines the distance between them that it’s impossible to see what connected the couple in the first place. Opposites may well attract, but we do actually need to see the attraction. Finally, there’s one scene of mutual abandonment between them as they gleefully fight over a box of chocolates. That comes 50 pages into the script. Until then, all we’re shown is the doom of their alliance.
And that’s the production’s dominant tone. Neil Austin picks the actors out with an almost bronze light against the suffocating darkness. Giles Cadle’s minimalist set provides a polished wooden parquet floor with a wooden disc suspended over the actors. That helps the fluidity of a play made up of short movie-like scenes, but instead of allowing the energy from one scene to charge up the next, Posner becalms everything. Almost every scene has the same pace and a dying fall emphasized by slow fadeouts between scenes and looming clarinet music.
Both leads are trapped into overplaying subtext at the expense of text. O’Connor is not an ideal fit as Viv — her upper-class accent sounds unnatural and forced — but she makes her character’s every moment that of a wayward and helpless woman. It’s impressive but repetitive.
Keen, too, struggles with Eliot’s accent (which makes him seem even more distant) while showing every shade of gray in the character. But without a full range of mood and emotions, it’s like watching the end of the play from the word go. The combined effect — degrees of underlying distress vs. degrees of underlying repression — leaves auds nothing to discern for themselves.
It’s left to the supporting cast to add depth. Robert Portal plays Maurice with a rare combination of sympathy and comic brio, while beautifully costumed Anna Carteret has the perfect well-upholstered Edwardian elegance as a mother genuinely in conflict over her daughter.
As Viv’s doddery father, a nicely understated Benjamin Whitrow tells Tom, “I’d never interfere … but what have you two done to each other?” That this is the most touching moment of the play suggests a serious imbalance.