BBC Radio 4, 27 December 2008
The story of Vivienne Haigh-Wood's marriage to T.S.Eliot is at once tragic yet illustrative of the class-ridden prejudices dominating British society in the middle of the last century. The two married in haste in 1915, much to the chagrin of Vivienne's family, who believed that weddings were for financial and status purposes rather than for love. Although they made token efforts to accommodate Eliot, it was clear that they were uncomfortable with the presence of an American poet in their midst. For his part Eliot (Benedict Cumberbatch) despised the family - particularly Vivienne's brother Maurice (David Haig), whose obsession with attending the 'right' (i.e. socially most acceptable) public school drove Eliot to distraction.
From the outset the marriage was doomed to fail. As performed by Lia Williams, Vivienne was a hyperactive neurotic making every effort to resist the overpowering influence of family tradition. This drove her to behavioural extremes - such as shouting in the street or telling implausible lies - which her husband felt powerless to curtail. Meanwhile the family pretended that nothing was wrong. Matters became so bad that Eliot ultimately resolved to have his wife committed to a sanatorium on the grounds of insanity. The official reason given was that he had to spend eight months at Harvard as Professor of Poetry, and Vivienne needed professional care. In reality Eliot had had enough of looking after Vivienne and her family - particularly her mother Rose (Judy Parfitt), who accused him of callousness and insensitivity to his wife's social position.
The play's dénouement was unbearably poignant: having been officially committed in 1935, Vivienne spent twelve years in an institution. Eliot never visited her, while Rose disowned her until her death in 1941 in the belief that to acknowledge her daughter's confinement represented a slur on the family reputation. Maurice spent most of that time abroad; when he returned, he was shocked to discover that Vivienne lived a reclusive existence. Nonetheless she maintained an almost tigerish love for her husband and his achievements - after all, it was she who had suggested the title of his greatest work The Waste Land. Williams portrayed her as not insane at all; rather she had been a social embarrassment both for her husband and her mother, and they responded by putting her away in the believe that she should be "out of sight, out of mind." If this was the intention, then writer Hastings showed that it dismally failed, as Eliot tried to tear up the ground covering her coffin at her funeral in a vain attempt to be near her once again.
This revival of Tom and Viv proved riveting - dominated by two central performances. Cumberbatch's Eliot proved physically unable to relate to other people, while Williams' Vivienne was a free spirit destroyed by convention. The director was Peter Kavanagh.