My recent performance in Somerset was the second time that Libby Burgess and I have done Stephen McNeff’s Vivienne as a concert work rather than in its staged form. Alexandra Coghlan’s kind words in her review of the original production have proved to be correct and the power of the songs in their own right is undeniable.
The piece was conceived with the intention to stage it and is magnificent in a brilliant production by Joe Austin, designed by Simon Kenny. Having given four staged performances in 2013, there is now a rich hinterland of character and movement which informs the piece in concert. There are also interesting differences – not just the different micro-decisions one makes mid-performance, but also the way in which the relationship with the audience in a concert situation changes things. Vivienne in her staged world is isolated and genuinely alone: she makes contact with an audience but it is in her imagination, conjured from memory by her own need for comfort in the asylum. The actual audience in the space sometimes doubles as her imaginary audience but for me, as Vivienne, there is a distinct separation between them.
The composer’s sub-title for Vivienne is “six cabaret songs” and in a concert presentation they irresistibly lean toward this model, in a much more direct dialogue with a ‘real’ audience. Different aspects of Vivienne’s character emerge. She is still undeniably herself, but I find more of what I imagine her to have been in real-life social situations – by turns charming and coquettish, attention-seeking and sulky, as well as confronting painful self-revelation in the extraordinary ending. Words in Andy Rashleigh’s magnificent libretto acquire additional nuance and in concert Vivienne reacts to the audience’s response in a way which feels wrong in the isolation of her staged environment.
I love the flexibility of the piece in these two situations, and the various aspects of Vivienne that emerge in the deepening relationship Libby and I continue to develop with her. This week we record the cycle at Champs Hill, which will require us to commit to an interpretation of it for posterity. Hopefully a third version will emerge that captures her infinite variety even more vividly for the aural experience.