This post discusses the play Vivien, which is about the life of Vivien Leigh, so if you don’t know much about Leigh’s life, this would contain minor spoilers for the play.
The life of two-time Academy Award-winner Vivien Leigh was a complicated one. Nowadays, most know Leigh chiefly for her performances in Gone with the Wind (1939) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) – not to mention for her complicated marriage to Sir Laurence Olivier. Some people may know about the bipolar disorder that plagued most of her adult life, and some may know about the tuberculosis that ultimately took it.
But even for someone who does know the facts of Vivien Leigh’s life, seeing it performed live is a whole other story. That’s where Rick Foster’s play Vivien comes in. Set in a theater shortly before Leigh’s death in 1967, Vivien is a one-woman, one-act play that essentially consists of Leigh delivering a long monologue about her life. But it’s much more than that. Embedded in the monologue are halves of conversations with the likes of Winston Churchill, Katharine Hepburn, Ken Tynan, and the man himself: Laurence Olivier. And the whole play is littered with references to Leigh’s famous roles; these references are chiefly to Gone with the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire, but there are also some to her last film, Ship of Fools (1965), as well as some of her famous stage roles, including those of Lady Macbeth, Ophelia, Antigone, and Cleopatra.
When watching the play, it certainly is beneficial to have working knowledge of Leigh’s life and roles in order to most fully understand the subtle references in the monologue. But the play does a decent job of getting its audience up to speed. For example, if you don’t know that Leigh had an affair with actor Peter Finch, well, you’ll get the idea easily enough. If you’ve seen Gone with the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire, you’ll have a decent head start on the references to her work, but brush up on your Shakespeare and Sophocles and then watch Ship of Fools in order to understand even more.
If you are able to understand what it said, you’ll get a lot out of the play. The script is certainly affecting, and the portrayal of Leigh’s breakdown while filming Elephant Walk (during which she was eventually replaced by none other than Elizabeth Taylor) is particularly harrowing. It gets you inside Leigh’s head more than any biography could do. The Vivien Leigh presented in Vivien is a bitter woman. She blames critic Ken Tynan for stating her worst fear: that she is responsible for holding back Olivier’s full potential. She is still livid that Olivier never acted upon his promise to film their Macbeth; as she states, he’s been immortalized as the likes of Hamlet and Henry V, while she’s been relegated to Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche DuBois. Interestingly, the play insinuates that Leigh became quite attached to her roles, as she frequently analyzes how they would act in her situations. The Vivien Leigh of Vivien, like her real-life counterpart, is a fully dimensional person, complete with desires and full of flaws.
Part of what made me feel so engrossed by Vivien was the performance of the actress. Put on by Rogue Machine Theatre, this production (the Los Angeles area premiere) starred Judith Chapman, of The Young and the Restless fame. If you see Chapman as herself, you wouldn’t quite think she looks like Leigh. Put a dark-haired wig on her, and she has a passing resemblance. But when Chapman imitated Leigh’s famous expressions, including her iconic raised eyebrow and her mischievous cat-like smile, she eerily was Leigh’s spitting image. There were several moments in the production when I almost felt as though I were watching the real Vivien Leigh.
But Chapman did much more than just look the part; she completely embodied Vivien Leigh. Her performance was a whirlwind of emotion, ranging from humor to hysterics – but never losing the humanity. And I, for one, was enraptured throughout the entire performance. There were several moments, mostly the humorous ones, where I found myself grinning ear to ear. During one such moment, it appeared that Chapman was looking right at me. Naturally, it’s doubtful that she could actually see me, but, nonetheless, it was a spellbinding moment, almost akin to seeing Vivien Leigh speak directly to me. When a performance hits you like that, it’s hard not to be moved. I hope many others get the chance to see Vivien in some incarnation; it is without a doubt an arresting hour and a half and an experience that won’t be forgotten long after you’ve seen it.