Vivien Merchant

Vivien Merchant was a brilliantly gifted actress, capable of combining grace and economy of movement with the ability to convey intensity and emotional power through subtle inflections of text and the silence surrounding it. These became most apparent in her portrayal of many of the most demanding parts created by her husband, Harold Pinter, although she could bring these uncommon qualities to roles in any idiom.

Born at Bury (now a district of Manchester), and well-served by early ballet training, Merchant was professionally active from 1942, graduating from child roles in popular theatrical adaptations and films (Adele in Jane Eyre at Peterborough Playhouse, The Glass Slipper at Nottingham, Sidney Greenstreet’s small daughter in the patriotic film The Way Ahead), through Noel Coward revue (Sigh No More, Ace of Clubs) to small roles in Shakespeare (Jessica in The Merchant of Venice, Phebe in As You Like It, the Third Witch in Macbeth, Bianca in Othello, Maria in Twelfth Night) as part of Donald Wolfit’s touring company.

During the 1940s and early 1950s, Merchant worked extensively in repertory (including with the Harry Hanson and Barry O’Brien repertory companies; at the Intimate Theatre at Palmers Green in London, the Connaught at Worthing, the Hippodrome at Birmingham and the Winter Gardens, Bournemouth), becoming strongly established as a versatile and highly skilled professional. Merchant also appeared many times with Sir Donald Wolfit’s touring Shakespeare Company.

During this period she met Pinter, then also working in rep under the name of David Baron. They married in 1956 and had a son, Daniel, in 1958. Merchant always referred to Pinter as David – something of an irony, as her own birth name was Ada Thomson (not Thompson). As Pinter began to define his voice and signature as a playwright, Merchant’s own career gradually became intimately linked with his work (The Room, A Slight Ache, Night School, The Collection, A Night Out, and short sketches, including Applicant, a blackly comic two-hander, with David Waller, on the subject of torture).

Merchant’s career gained considerable momentum with the success of the television presentations of Pinter’s plays A Night Out (1960), The Collection (1962) and especially The Lover (1963), for which she won the Evening Standard Best Newcomer Award and a BAFTA Best Actress Award. In the latter, Merchant (partnered by Alan Badel) brought a persuasive combination of gentility and eroticism to the role of the wife/lover. Her ability to project – in kaleidoscopic succession – qualities of allure, mystery and threat was amplified in the role of Wendy in Tea Party, playing for comedy with a great deal of menace against Leo McKern for the BBC in 1965. It was in these performances that the refinement and subtlety afforded by the roles began to define Merchant’s reputation, and consequently individuality.

Merchant was much in demand during the 1960s and 70s by other writers for the stage (Christopher Fry’s translation of Giradoux’s Judith, Tessa in Joe Orton’s Funeral Games, Victoria in David Mercer’s Flint, Bertha in Joyce’s Exiles, a quietly moving sketch, Resting Place, by David Campton and sketches by Alan Ayckbourn and Lyndon Brook), on television (including Natalia Petrovna in Turgenev’s A Month in the Country, The Weather in the Streets, Peter Nichols’ The Common), on radio and in film; as Dirk Bogarde’s tolerant wife in Accident (1967) for Jospeh Losey; as a terrible amateur gourmet cook in Frenzy for Hitchcock (1972); a long-suffering wife partnering Sean Connery in The Offence for Sidney Lumet (also in 1972); a Barbara Goalen mannequin as Madame in Genet’s The Maids for Christopher Miles (1974); and cameos; as a mute wife to Ian McKellen in Alfred the Great (1969) and the wife of both the real and pretender Kings in The Man in The Iron Mask (1977).

Merchant’s shy, understated portrayal of a lonely and downtrodden housewife seduced by Michael Caine’s rake in Lewis Gilbert’s Alfie (1966) brought international recognition and an Academy Award nomination. The pivotal sequence in which the woman, Lily, initially with quiet dignity, attempts unsuccessfully to control her physical and existential pain as she endures an illegal abortion, is subtle, distressing and moving.

In 1965, Merchant created the role of Ruth in the first production of Pinter’s The Homecoming, which ran for over 400 performances at the Aldwych and later on Broadway’s Music Box from 1965–67. Despite Pinter’s own avowal that he had never expressly written any part for his wife – and Ruth perhaps his most vivid female – there remains a transcendental connection with writer and player in this role. This production by the RSC, directed by Peter Hall, was captured on film in 1973 for the American Film Theatre series with Merchant, Paul Rogers and Ian Holm reprising their roles, Michael Jayston replacing Michael Bryant as Teddy and Cyril Cusack replacing John Normington as Sam. Merchant brought a cool, intellectual remoteness to the character of Ruth, slowly establishing the character as the most powerful and unassailable in a room alive with male threat and violence. There may be other ways to play this fascinating part – perhaps the most enigmatic in all Pinter – but this was as close to a definitive portrayal as it is possible to achieve.

In a commanding position as an actor, Merchant was partnered with Paul Scofield in 1967 in the RSC Macbeth, again directed by Peter Hall, which was not uniformly successful, although not the disaster which Hall (and quite a few of the critics of the time) thought it was – the highly polished technique of both actors and a surprising lack of obvious sexual chemistry somehow preventing that partership of lust, ambition and greed from gelling. It was possibly a miscasting, although the production matured over many performances, including runs in Finland and the USSR, gaining in power while retaining a subtlety of approach by both leads. According to an entry in Joe Orton’s diaries, Merchant, in a conversation at the time with Coral Browne (who had played memorably with Paul Rogers in the lead roles of Macbeth in the 1950s) said: “Peter (Hall) wants me to play Lady M in a grey wig with a grey face, but I don’t think it’s quite right somehow”, to which Browne replied, pinteresquely, and with her customary relish of the f-word: “ I wouldn’t play her in a fucking grey wig. I played her as mature, but still very lovely. What are you going to do with the fucking candle? I wouldn’t bring it on. I left it in a sconce offstage. I wouldn’t bring it on.”

The production was perhaps an unfortunate disappointment, as the offer of such a major role represented the opportunity to be highly regarded independently of Pinter, who was by this stage beginning to be considered the finest writer for the stage of his generation. Added to this, Peter Hall’s decision, with Pinter’s agreement, to choose Peggy Ashcroft for the role of Beth in a major, transitional work, Landscape in 1968–9 caused considerable upset, although Merchant appeared in a shorter work, the overlooked Night, with Nigel Stock, exploring similar territory.

Merchant continued to demonstrate her preeminence as an actor during the late 60s and early 70s, on stage again in Pinter in one of his finest and most poetic works, Old Times, for the RSC (with Dorothy Tutin and Colin Blakely and again directed by Peter Hall), a reprise of Tea Party with Donald Pleasence, Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth (as the faded actress Princess Kosmonopolis), the Mother in Coward’s The Vortex (with Timothy Dalton) at Greenwich Theatre; Madame in Genet’s The Maids, also at Greenwich (with Susannah York and Glenda Jackson, repeated by all three on film); Laura in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (with Freddie Jones); as the Mistress in Edward Albee’s All Over, with Constance Cummings and Faith Brook; Bertha in an adaptation (by Pinter) of Joyce’s Exiles; in Restoration comedy (as Mrs Loveit) in Etherege’s The Man of Mode with a distinguished ensemble cast for the RSC; in Neil Simon’s The Gingerbread Lady with Elaine Strich and Stephen Greif at the Theatre Royal, Windsor; Gaslight with Julian Glover at the Yvonne Arnaud, as well as frequent work on TV and in film, including an unsettling version of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood and a perceptive, if somewhat laboured, portrayal of the political/religious conflicts in Northern Ireland, A War of Children, with John Ronane, Anthony Andrews and Jenny Agutter.

There were many apperances in leading roles on televsion, including: Wives and Lovers by Maupassant (adapted by Doris Lessing, 1963); My Friend Corby (with Nigel Stock and Patrick Allen, 1966); as Natalia Petrovna in Turgenyev’s A Month in the Country (1966); The Fall of the Sparrow and The Weather in the Streets (1965); as Evelyn Daly in Waters of the Moon (1966); Skyscrapers (with Michael Bryant,1969), as Augusta Fullan in Wicked Women (1970).

Merchant also frequently featured on BBC radio during this period. In 1969 Merchant particpated in a reading of excerpts of Antonia Fraser’s biography of Mary, Queen of Scots, at the National Gallery with John Westbrook, Olive Gregg and Fraser. This was coincidentally – and significantly – the first contact between Fraser and Pinter. The audio recording was subsequently commercially released by Arco, leading to invitations for Merchant to recite poetry, monologues and short stories and plays on radio.

There were some interesting cancellations/near misses: Joseph Losey’s film of LP Hartley’s masterpiece, The Go-Between of 1971, (the part of the mother taken by Margaret Leighton); Losey’s The Romantic Englishwoman in 1974 (the part taken by Glenda Jackson), Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (Rachel Roberts taking the role of Mrs Appleyard) in 1975 and an exquisitely observed adaptation by Pinter of Aidan Higgins’ melancholy Langrishe Go Down (the central role was written for Merchant, but finally taken and movingly played in 1978 by Judi Dench). Such roles would have provided the opportunity to convey nuanced dimensions of character and to be seen by a public wider than theatre audiences.

Much has been written about the destructive separation of Pinter and Merchant in 1975, after Pinter left to live with – and subsequently marry – Antonia Fraser; this came at a time when any actress would, in the best of circumstances, begin to perceive the unfairness of declining offers for interesting mature roles. In fact, the marriage with Pinter had already been turbulent for many years, with Pinter’s affair with the writer and broadcaster Joan Bakewell (from 1962–69) even forming the substance of his play, Betrayal, which – tellingly – was written after the separation and staged in 1977.

It was also utimately unfortunate that Merchant’s career remained closely connected with her husband’s work, despite the vigorous attempts of both to remain independent. Pinter remarked many times that he had never consciously written any part for a specific actor: “and this includes my wife…Vivien has played parts in my plays because she is one hell of an actress.” Perhaps if stronger professional independence had occurred earlier, the trauma of the separation may have been overcome with less pain and ultimately tragedy. As it was, the fall-out from the separation resulted in a complete collapse of professional and personal confidence for Merchant, a consequent reputation for unreliability (despite a major career of over 35 years of repertory, major first-rate theatrical runs, film, live and recorded television and radio productions), subsequent isolation, alcohol dependence – and utimately a tragically premature death at 53, in 1982.

However, the intensely intimate personal and creative bond between Pinter and Merchant, especially at the start of their careers, was of great mutual importance, and remains one of the most enduringly fascinating aspects of their work and contribution to theatre. Pinter himself recalled this and described many wonderful times together; and it appears, from recollections by him and others, that Merchant possessed a winningly anti-authoritarian streak, with some memorable put-downs of Princess Margaret, J F Kennedy and later, Antonia Fraser, among others.

After the separation and divorce from Pinter, Merchant appeared sporadically on stage, TV and radio (a revival of The Lover for ITV and on stage, Strindberg’s The Father at Greenwich Theatre partnering Patrick Allen; A Portrait of Elizabeth Fry (1977); A Tale of Two Cities (1980) for the BBC as Miss Pross, again with Nigel Stock; cameos in The Secret Army, Breakaway (with Martin Jarvis) and Crown Court).

Vivien Merchant was a great deal more than a fine example of the quintessential theatre professional; well trained, modulated, versatile, intelligent, subtle, expressive and with sensual appeal; her work was marked with very rare gifts as an actor of poetic nuance and subtlety far beyond the confines of the text, to the point of being a collaborator in – as well as interpreter of – her former husband’s work.

Nicholas Ashton, 2020

Past productions

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