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Actress Susie Lindeman talks to Tom Wicker about channelling a star in the centenary of her birth, in new play VIVIEN

In 1960, while starring in Duel of Angels on Broadway, Vivien Leigh receives a letter from Laurence Olivier asking for a divorce. Her past flies into focus as she fights for his love – and her life.

Donald Macdonald’s Vivien: Letter to Larry brings to life the making – and breaking – of the legendary star of such classic films as A Streetcar Named Desire and Gone with the Wind. Following its world premiere in Paris in 2013 and special performances celebrating the centenary of Leigh’s birth, this one-woman show is coming to London as part of Jermyn Street Theatre’s first Matinee Season, starring Susie Lindeman.

Chiming with the BFI Vivien Leigh season, the current Vivien Leigh exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, the high-profile acquisition of her archive by the V&A and this autumn’s 75th anniversary of Gone with the Wind, Vivien brings the spirit of Leigh back to the West End.

Unfortunately, the production as originally staged in Paris has been postponed due to a bereavement among the creative team. However, to honour audiences, Lindeman will still be performing her role in matinee dates now being 1, 8 and 15 October at 2:30pm. The full production will now take place in an evening season next year.

I met with Lindeman – whose career includes Howards End and numerous West End and international (including Broadway) roles – to discuss her life-long affinity with Leigh.

There’s an intimacy in the use of just Vivien Leigh’s first name in the play’s title. Do you feel that you have grown close to her while performing the role?

Vivien actually came to me when I was 11. It was all very fateful. A teacher said, ‘OK, class, we’re going to write a book review. Go to the library and choose any book.’ I went and found one and thought, ‘Who’s Vivien Leigh?’ I liked the picture on her biography. So I did my book review on it! And when I was 12, I chose a scene from A Streetcar Named Desire to perform. Since then, I have acted as her in three plays. In fact, Donald, the writer of Vivien, approached me because he knew I’d played her before! Also, I worked with Rex Harrison in my first West End production. He and Vivien were a double-act in their early comedy films and he talked about her a lot. So she doesn’t feel like a historic figure or a movie star. I feel I know her almost as a colleague.

What is your affinity with her then?

I don’t know how to describe it – she just comes to me! It feels like she’s guiding me, actually. I don’t mean that spookily, just that there’s some element of her private self – and I don’t mean her family life – that seems to come to me in this play. It’s in the writing.

Is the play’s exploration of Leigh’s private life based on her correspondence?

Funnily enough, the writer’s source material was the various books about her and watching her performances. But since then, I’ve been to the V&A, seen the new archive material and there’s nothing that’s new that we haven’t discovered while doing this play. In meeting people who knew Vivien, I've been told things which have never been published – some of which are in this play. But the colours that are now coming out are already there. I hate boring bio plays and one-woman or one-man shows where you know what’s going to happen. But the great thing about how this is written is that, somehow, that’s not the case.

So what’s different about this play?

It is a play about a person who has an immediate situation which she must survive. And in that, we will find out about many things. But it’s not ‘Oh, I did this and I did that.’ She could change. Make magic. One of the great things about Donald’s writing is that it keeps us in suspense – which is amazing, given that many people do know her life. It’s like a diamond. Every facet glints and then it implodes.

What do you think explains the enduring appeal of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier together?

It is amazing how vivid their personalities and talents remain. I was astonished in Paris by the number of French people who waited and waited to talk to me and tell me how Vivien changed their lives in this way or that. In her most famous films, in A Streetcar Named Desire and Gone with the Wind, Vivien revealed herself both spirit and soul. Larry had this muscular magnetism in his stage work that people still talk about. And in partnership, they were equally strong but in different ways, which is fascinating.

Is part of the appeal of their relationship that people love a grand, doomed love affair?

I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I say it’s astonishing that, even now, we speak of Larry and Viv. We don’t speak of Larry and Joan. We know Joan, we love Joan – and the beautiful life they created. But the icon of Larry and Viv is beyond that. Whether it’s tragic or not – and of course the public didn’t know how tragic it was, for a while – I think people have a gratefulness for what their performances gave them. Whether you went to the theatre and saw Larry and were inspired, or whether you saw Vivien on stage and screen, they touched your emotions. Vivien was so spirited, and spiritual too – I think what happened was more mythological – and people's own spirits are inspired by such lives.

And, of course, they are enmeshed in the history of British theatre. Do you think that has played its part?

I think it taps into a respect for theatre and for performance. I think there was a training that went on, and a discipline, that is around today, but it’s so much easier now for people to just say ‘I’m an actor’. Then, you really had to excel in repertory or in role after role. As I learn more about Larry and Vivien, I’m always discovering more – it's true that sometimes they had immense failures and terrible reviews and rejection, as well as well as being 'the golden couple'. They have become iconic now perhaps because of a respect for what used to be. I think that’s what I’m tapping into in my performance – Vivien as actress. She was so dedicated to the theatre that I'm told she'd be proud of this play because it presents her story theatrically. There is that sense that this is a tribe that, as actors, we all belong to.

Are the qualities you describe ones you have tried to emulate during your career?

I’m one of those actors who finds it really hard to talk about what they do. I don’t know what it is that I do. I just know when I do it! And I know that it helps to get out of my own way. But for playing Vivien I do access a certain fragility – with a forceful fury just in reach! In my career I've been lucky to play deeply emotional roles, where they reveal their spirit fully. But Howards End was comedy, as was The Admirable Crichton with Rex. And Vivien loved to make people laugh, too, which is another inspiration to me. She shone even in heartbreak. Reading all of Vivien and Larry’s correspondence shows me how their work was also to do with the celebrity they had. They couldn’t just come to the stage door, relax and warm up to it. They were on all of the time. Larry pushed himself to new heights, but Vivien did more than many realise. There was the extraordinary production of Antigone – and her Lady Macbeth! These have been hailed as among the best performances of these characters and we don’t really know that now. I think I share with Vivien a love of the stage as a place where actors' and audiences' souls connect.

Do you feel a responsibility to expand our understanding of her?

Vivien used to say that she liked acting because she liked making people understand things. That’s a line in the play, so there is some of that. I also feel that the play is a channel. When, as Vivien, I mention something that happened at a theatre we probably all went to last week, it just brings her so closely to our lives. Even the recent Streetcar at the Young Vic – people can’t help but compare with her. She’s our first connection with so many things. Her centenary has turned into an extraordinary thing, with all of these events at the BFI, the V&A and the National Portrait Gallery. I did a performance in the Ondaatje Wing and it was, as in Paris, astonishing to see people’s response. Everyone has a secret Vivien moment! So, yes, I do.

You have done a number of one-woman shows during your career. Why? And is it ever lonely?

Part of the answer is that once you’ve done one, people trust you to do another one! But, especially with this one, I’m not alone – because Vivien’s there. This writing is like a symphony that just plays and I’m an instrument in it. It’s her show, not mine. I just dive in.

And you’re doing it at a theatre, Jermyn Street, that’s so redolent of West End history. Does that help?

I think Vivien’s audiences are West End. They want to come and share her life somewhere they know, and you can’t get a better theatre for that than Jermyn Street. But, Donald's play is not just for those who are interested in Vivien Leigh – it is an exciting, visceral play in itself. It has an immediacy, much like Vivien's performance as Scarlett in Gone with the Wind, if you watch it today. It’s about life and love – trials and triumphs.

For more information on Vivien, see: http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/whatson.html#lettertolarry






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