Is there anyone in the universe who has never heard of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton? No? Then you have been living in a cave for the last forty-odd years and are too far behind to catch up with this play. And the millions of you who know the story will learn nothing new.
She had been one of the biggest stars in Hollywood since the age of eleven; he was an actor from the Welsh valleys with a voice like a cathedral choir and an ambition to match. She loved life, food, drink, jewellery and men. He loved applause and women. She was a supremely skilled film actress. He never quite matched her screen charisma and never fathomed how she did it.
The play tells us about as much as could be gleaned from reading a magazine article on the subject under a hair dryer. It quotes heavily from articles and interviews; the bickering repeats itself, going round and round until it almost wears ruts in the stage. There is no real effort to explore the nature of the electricity the couple created, and the one attempt to create tension by putting Elizabeth at odds with Richard’s family background, is inaccurate. Dangerously inaccurate in fact, because her comfort with his family and her willingness to be a part of it is an important clue to what made her an all time Hollywood great. She was never other than straightforwardly, honestly, herself. She was honest about her passions, her needs and her weaknesses, and it was that integrity that made her a superstar and kept her going through all the tragedies, illnesses and difficulties of her life.
The play doesn’t even try to dramatise that. Indeed it never asks the question of how intellectual Burton really was. Taylor was not nearly as stupid and silly as Burton and the play suggest, and he was not nearly as profound a thinker as he would have liked the world to believe. He made supremely beautiful noises, with very little meaning.
The production is odd as well. We are meant, I assume, to be on a film set, rehearsing Virginia Woolf but the set itself looks like the shabby backstage area of some off-Broadway theatre, which is confusing. All was clarified by Lydia Poole’s lovely testing out of various readings of the opening line of the play, (‘What a dump.’), the only moment when we actually saw either of these people doing the work that made them famous. Otherwise, they simply repeat the same insults over and over.
There were a number of inaccuracies scattered through the script, mostly about Taylor’s early life and Burton’s relationship with his foster father, which was vital to his career and is here ignored. Also I personally objected to the insulting references to Sandy Dennis, the brilliant and much-loved actress who played Honey in Virginia Woolf, who died young and is still affectionately remembered.
The acting consists mostly of mimicry rather than real character creation. I could have done with fewer mannerisms and more matter. Lydia Poole actually has the right idea at a number of points. She doesn’t have Taylor’s luminous beauty or glamour (who does? That’s why she was Elizabeth Taylor) but she has something else, equally important: she communicates Taylor’s honesty and self-awareness, and she did make me believe that this woman was at the top for the whole of her life, from National Velvet to AIDS’ spokeswoman. Ken McConnell has the harder job actually, feeling forced to imitate Burton’s voice which was inimitable. The part is too large for him, like his suit. Burton was a complicated man and the actor doesn’t begin to approach the edges of his passion, neediness, self-delusion, or ego. Why write this play? What is it about? What point was the author trying to make? Who knows? Everyone seems to be having a good time. I wasn’t bored exactly, but I don’t think I would recommend this play to any but the most devoted Taylor-Burton fan and wish Lydia Poole good luck with her next play.
Review by Kate Beswick
The Liz and Dick Show
Dhanil Ali forces us to witness the intimate breakdown of both a professional and personal relationship as Elizabeth and Richard spar at breakneck speed during their preliminary script readings.
Ken McConnell rounds Burton’s Welsh vowels with warmth and tenderness only to be rebuffed by Elizabeth’s sharp alcohol-fuelled sarcasm. He wears the Burton cardigan as his own skin, the relaxed confident Shakespearean master who is obsessed with love for Elizabeth, but harbouring too the resentment which comes from being the poor Welsh boy now married to one of the world’s richest women.
Lydia Poole plays the 34 year old Liz with natural glamour, perfectly timed wit and stomach lurching poignancy as she realises their marriage is steering toward an abyss. Public and private audiences are uncomfortable witnesses to their positive and negative passions. Can’t live with her, can’t live without him. In Richard Burton’s own words: “Our love is so furious that we burn each other out”.
Old Red Lion Theatre
13th – 31st January 2015
Tuesday – Saturday at 7.30pm
Saturday matinees at 3pm
Sunday matinees at 2pm
Tickets £15.00 (£12.00 conc)
Book online or call the box office on 0844 412 4307
Sunday 18th January 2015