Wednesday 21 August 2013

Vivienne - a second view

Clare McCaldin in Stephen McNeff and Andy Rashleigh's Vivienne
Stephen McNeff and Andy Rashleigh's Vivienne was reviewed in a guest posting on this blog when Hilary Glover went to see Clare McCaldin's performance at Tete a Tete: The Opera Festival. I was keen to see the work for myself, so went along to The Forge in Camden on Tuesday 20 August. To catch Joe Austin's production with Clare McCaldin and Libby Burgess at the piano.

The 40 minute work is one single extended operatic monologue, a tour de force from performer, Clare McCaldin, and composer alike. I had never visited The Forge before, and Vivienne suited the venue's relatively intimate space.  The work deals with Vivienne Haigh-Wood and her disastrous marriage to the poet T. S. Eliot and her eventual confinement in a mental institution, ignored and unvisited by Eliot.

Austin's production, designed by Simon Kenny, took place in a simple white space with two white chairs. McCaldin, as,Vivienne, entered wearing just a white shift. Set in the context of Vivienne's incarceration in a mental institution, the work looked back at her relationship with Eliot, whilst conveying the feeling that in the constant present she was eternally waiting for him.

McNeff and Rashleigh do this in a series of set piece flashbacks, which McNeff based on the popular music of the day (both Eliot and Vivienne loved the music hall). So we opened with McCaldin putting on a fur coat amidst musical reminiscences of a dance number. Later there was a delightful number about Bertram Russell, with whom Vivienne had an affair, in which McCaldin combined a nice line in comic music hall number with the essential pathos of the situation; when Vivienne needed Russell most he was never there.

Talking to McCaldin afterwards she explained how she wanted to bring out Vivienne's charm and only gradually did her more manic characteristics become apparent.

The work is perhaps lighter than McCaldin and McNeff's previous collaboration, A Voice of One Delight, on the relationship between Shelly and his lover. But the two works have in common the desire to give voice to a silent woman from history (we know little about Vivienne partly because few of her letters survived).

But McNeff and McCaldin built the piece into a powerful conclusion as we gradually left popular music behind as Vivienne's obsession became deeper till we finally leave her, still waiting. McCaldin gave a remarkable performance. Remarkable perhaps because in its complete identification with Vvivienne and its visit intensity she made you forget that this was sung at all and the work became simply drama of the most involving kind.

Rashleigh's libretto was very literate, not only did we get echoes of Eliot's poetry, but he wove into it all sorts of tangential historical references and I am sure the piece would repay repeated listening.

McNeff's music never put a foot wrong, fluidly moving from evocations of dance music to darker flashes, keeping the form fluid and flexible. The work keeps a certain light tone, partly from the music hall references and partly as an evocation of the character of Vivienne herself. McNeff and McCaldin have succeeded in giving voice to one of the silent voices of history.

Throughout, McCaldin was superbly supported by Libby Burgess at the piano.

Out of the wreck of T. S. Eliot's first marriage came The Waste Land and I can't help hoping that one of our enterprising literary festivals will pair this remarkable performance with one of The Waste Land itself, the result would be riveting.

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