Friday, 13 September 2013

Vivienne, McCaldin Arts, Tete a Tete Opera Festival & Camden Fringe

During August I had the opportunity to see three performances of a new mono-drama by the company for whom I do some publicity work, McCaldin ArtsVivienne - commissioned by the company's producer-performer Clare McCaldin - is a sequence of six songs concerning the life of TS Eliot's first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, intended for the stage. The piece is typical of the company's body of work concerning women with a literary background. The music style of Vivienne suggested itself as the Eliots loved the variety and dance culture of music hall. Indeed an early press-release for the piece suggested a range of stylistic reference in the music, from the informality of cabaret to the rather more arms-length foil of opera and with all manner of music-hall inflected variety inbetween.

This was partly to do with the interest of the protagonists. Yes, there are two. There is the figuratively present Vivienne, whom Clare McCaldin embodies in the show. There is also the absent TS Eliot, to whom Vivienne directs her conversation, pleading, scorn and ultimate bewilderment.

The absence of an implicit character is the one issue that, on the face of it, could have presented a problem to the company. McCaldin's familiar collaborator Stephen McNeff and his librettist Andy Rashleigh (a shrewd partnership, the pair having worked worked on a previous, stylised music drama after TS Eliot, The Waste Land, almost twenty years ago) found themselves without a second figure with whom to construct dialogue.

Andy Rashleigh rather brilliantly outmaneouvres the issue by peppering Vivienne's text with endless refractions of Eliot's poetry. Thus Eliot is given a voice in absentia, investing Vivienne's recollections with both succour and sarcasm. The drama is in the elliptical cadences that this half-remembered verse, midwifed by Vivienne during their marriage, provides. Her life - by being bound to Eliot - is unfinished. She is ready and waiting for the next act.

The illusion of a character in song does not automatically guarantee the same on stage in production. In his light-touch treatment of the work director Joe Austin worked hand-in-glove with his regular designer partner Simon Kenny to create a special space for Vivienne. Blank but not void, the white square is defined but not a cell. It is a platform - but for Vivienne's own, self-reflexive audience. Across the two performance venues of its summer run, the footlights of the Tete a Tete Opera Festival show were necessarily lost to the raised dais of The Forge, Camden. The early-proposed cabaret element was definitively sacrificed to these fourth walls but the clearer delineation of Vivienne as an operatic mono-drama made for a more taut experience.

Ready... Vivienne hesitates to come into this defined, pedagogic space. In both theatres Clare McCaldin entered the auditorium from the wing in character, pausing to absorb the potential and demands of the stage from its periphery. Perhaps Vivienne understands her actions and the drama they will precipitate?

Vivienne Haigh-Wood was sectioned in 1938 but the reasons are still equivocal: thought mad, as her biophysical condition was undiagnosed, it's possible that she was complicit in her own incarceration. This is a clear suggestion of the 1994 film adaptation of Michael Hastings' play Tom & Viv, right (one might note that this suggestion of self-sacrifice from an atheist for her high-Anglican husband is the ironic opposite of the dramatic twist at the heart of Graham Greene's contemporaneously set The End Of The Affair).

... and waiting. Vivienne is waiting for Eliot to return, just as she did when the poet returned from America in 1933 (where he had gone for a year's professorship and to enforce the separation from her he had long wanted). This is a where the Beckettian confines of the production space are at their most apparent; Vivienne looks outwards but her questioning of Eliot's whereabouts are rhetorical, her cries in the final song 'Belladonna' expressionist, expecting no comeback. Even the bare, white design is a limbo. In her nightshift she is poised, either prepared to dress for action, or to capitulate in sleep.

Such is the nature of Eliot's own modernism which rattles backwards and forwards between styles and sensibilities (biographer Peter Ackroyd notes that Eliot probably wanted to re-create in poetry what Joyce had achieved in the prose of Ulysses).

Stephen McNeff's music reflects this with fluid movement in and out of pastiche with a brisk piano scoring that suggests a skeletal, Weill-like club band. Then a sudden, startling brake in motion exposes the appropriation of style as nothing more than that and Vivienne is left just as 'lost, lonely and scared' as - without rhetoric - she says she is. Indeed this is the central moment of this score, the least opaque, the most intimate and honest music, in McNeff's authentic vernacular. No more the 'tomfoolery' (Andy Rashleigh's own word), the displacements of dancing, nostalgia or the simple (Freudian) procrastination of thinking about it all.

In each performance that I saw of Vivienne, Clare McCaldin and her pianist Libby Burgess had completely absorbed this febrile characteristic. Meticulously enunciated lyrics, coloured by the musical setting, meant that the opera was alive, able to alter shade or temperament quickly. In consequence, gestures could be small, be they the shifting bias of a tempo change or a movement, even a look; somehow Clare McCaldin managed to make a distinction between the mind's-eye reality of a post-coital Bertrand Russell in the next chair and the thousand-yard stare at an Eliot who is there in neither fact nor promise.

By the close, the desiccated truth of Vivienne's isolation renders even the piano superfluous. She is ready and waiting but to no purpose. Perhaps, as Eliot himself famously said, 'in my end is my beginning', and, caught in this circularity, Vivienne bloodlessly intones 'stick her in a long book until it's all over' (in the repetitive style of the famous 'This is the way the world ends' denouement of The Wasteland itself). Like the evanescent Pincher Martin or - also stuck, hallucinating, on a rock - Tristan (referred to by both Eliot and Rashleigh), the protagonist is oscillating between life and extinction until one is indistinguishably the other.

Being part of the backroom team for Vivienne meant that I was willing the piece and its production to succeed. However, the unequivocal success of the show - which, despite my identification of its raw emotional kernel, is also a riotous and occasionally risqué entertainment - came as a pleasant surprise to the company. Further performances in London are planned, though the nature of the staging is yet to be determined.

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