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March 2004
Tom & Viv - Unicorn Theatre - Abingdon
Broad St during the war
Wartime Oxfordshire.



Old Gaol Theatre Company: Tom and Viv
Unicorn Theatre, Abingdon


 

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By Susan Biggins

In this 80s play, Michael Hastings examines the lives of Thomas S. Eliot and his wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood, from their Oxford courtship during WW1. Their ill-fated story is charted up until Viv's death 30 years later. The Unicorn's barebones setting, left spartan throughout, proved a good dissection table for the couple's relationship. The opening-night enjoyed a near-capacity audience, possibly curious having seen the film Tom & Viv, released by Miramax a decade ago.

After their marriage, Tom and Viv meet her family, who adjust slowly to this poet from St. Louis. Failing to comprehend Tom's intellect, they are concerned mainly with their daughter's mind. Indeed, Tom fails to communicate with her. His rigour - "it's such an effort being trivial" - clashes with Viv's unpredictability. This was the time of Tom's The Waste Land, a premonitory poem of disillusionment.

Feeling impotent, Tom turns outwards, first embracing Anglicanism, then leaving for Harvard. He files for separation, rarely to see Viv again. Her suffering and fear is apparent, "they want my mind." A diagnosis of hormonal imbalance comes too late to save a marriage, or perhaps her life. The play closes with her death in a mental institution. One year later, in 1948, Tom wins the Nobel Prize. This poignant divergence sums up the entire tragedy.

The performance benefited from meticulous touches that enhanced involvement: a steaming teapot, a clerk played by the prompt seated in the audience ... For a moment I was surprised to see a mediaeval ceiling when I followed Maurice's eyes to a chandelier.

There was emotional involvement too: although Tom's inaccessibility worked against him, I felt a pang for him kneeling at Viv's graveside. It didn't matter that Tom lost his accent occasionally, and barely aged. But I felt Viv's wit deserved more attention: it raised only rare chuckles, chiefly because Tom was so bent on being grave. Even so, the performance was practically hitch-less, the script itself did much of the work, and the Company were just about word perfect.

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