Based on the complex relationship between TS Eliot and his first wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood, Lindsay Posner’s revival of Michael Hastings’ powerful play at the Almeida is a heartbreaking story of love and madness.
Eliot is played by Will Keen as a dull, socially inept American who is swept off his feet by the vivacious Vivienne. They marry hastily and only gradually do the audience learn, as does Eliot, that Vivienne has suffered from periods of mania and depression since adolescence and that these episodes have been covered up by her family.
Beginning in 1915, when the couple marry, Hastings’ play depicts the disintegration of the relationships between Tom, Viv and her family, ending with her death in 1947. Her mother and father, played superbly by Anna Carteret and Benjamin Whitrow, do their best to support Tom whilst hiding their daughter’s problems from the world.
Frances O’Connor is astonishing as Vivienne, always the most dazzling person in the room yet at the same time often dangerously close to the edge, lapsing into sudden silences or manic speeches with regularity. Yet, despite her mood swings, she remains genuinely captivating and her gradual descent is painful to watch, with O’Connor managing to convey her inner turmoil without ever appearing stagy and mannered.
Keen makes Tom equally compelling to watch, playing him as a man nearly driven mad himself by the unpredictable behaviour of his wife, yet never neglecting the man’s deeply unsympathetic nature. This is a difficult balancing act to pull off but Keen’s performance makes it work. Robert Portal is also wonderful as Maurice, Vivienne’s brother, an archetypal public school buffoon, who snatches all the best lines and delivers them with nave charm. His character provides some necessary light relief in an often unrelentingly dark play.
The set is suitably sombre and minimal allowing the production to focus on the performances of the cast, and Posner’s direction is assured and intelligent throughout. The play itself is perhaps too episodic, but the story of the central relationship is so engaging that you can’t fail to be drawn in and the denouement is one of the more moving things I’ve seen on stage this year.