A LOST LADY RETURNS, SAD AND BEGUILING
Theatre loves to eat its own history, and fair enough: if you want intensity, volatile emotion, hope and heartbreak and impossible yet irresistible characters, there are few richer diets. Especially looking back at the age of star-cursed star marriages and a pre-permissive intensity of scandal. Only lately Southwark gave us ORSON’S SHADOW, with Adrian Lukis as Laurence Olivier, taking up with his third-wife-to-be Joan Plowright during an ill-fated collaboration with Orson Welles. In that play Vivien Leigh (Gina Bellman) was mentally disintegrating gradually, but in the background to the clash of Titans.
Now that divorce moment of 1960 is examined from another angle, and this time it is the full Vivien: the remarkable Susie Lindeman sits, roams, clambers, collapses, emotes and flirts, alone onstage for 75 minutes in Donald MacDonald’s play fresh from Paris. It chimes with a BFI season and exhibition at the V&A, marking fifty years since her final performances; and in its own right does much to remind us that there was more to poor Vivien than being Scarlett O’Hara and a discarded Lady Olivier.
Lindeman is physically perfect in the role: birdlike, fragile, a wayward waif, eagerly intense in profile. Her voice is deceptively wispy until it hardens into sudden determination, her studied actressy flirtatiousness suddenly falling away as the rages and despairs of her bipolar mental instability take hold. Her plaint that the ‘condition’ has condemned her to a life of apologizing for behaviour she can barely remember is unbearably touching. “Suddenly I seem to be standing outside myself and I can’t get back in”.
The title indicates that the monologue, in direct speech or recreated flashbacks over twenty years, is addressed to her lost husband, during the divorce and his remarriage to Plowright. At first , and in flashes thereafter, it is the kind of imaginary conversation anyone jilted in love can recognize: appealing, pleading, insulting, claiming. But as she remembers, she carries us back into their key moments: courtship (when both were married to other people), her convent childhood, a beauty’s steely conviction that she could always get what she wanted – “but then of course, you have to keep it..”. She remembers the misery of her ECT treatments, her miscarriages, the affair with Peter Finch, how Olivier’s look of love turned over years to intolerable pity. She flashes out the suddenly steely realization after Gone with the Wind that ‘I was better on film than you!”.
Every gesture and line is immaculate, thought-through, elegant and telling, and it becomes mesmerizing. Cal McCrystal directs – away from his normal comedy beat, but taking pains to keep it moving and surprising, not least with some brilliantly simple but effective video projections by Mic Gruchy : sea-waves, clouds, Notley Abbey’s ancient windows , and Sardi’s where the nervous Olivier agreed to meet her, his new woman at his side to guard him. It transports you to a lost time, and a lost individual’s rare, sad, starry career.
Box office 0207 287 2875 to 22 august