The public’s endless fascination with the gilded celebrity lives of Elizabeth Taylor & Richard Burton shows no sign of abating.
And certainly this year, what with the 50th Anniversary of Cleopatra, the paperback publication (and surrounding acclaimed reviews) of Burton’s Diaries, and the recent BBC TV film about them, has only added and increased their endless allure for the world’s movie fans.
Writer Dhani Ali’s spare but ferociously focused play pinpoints the stars lives as they were about to embark upon their most ambitious and controversial project together: the filming of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.
Both performances on view here are exemplary, even, in many ways, surpassing the recent TV film that gathered much publicity and positive reviews. Ken McConnell’s burnished fury displays the actor’s poetic soul, amidst the flying insults and caustic comments, most strikingly when he stands alone at centre stage, and recites impeccably the opening lines from Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood. I felt like standing up and applauding. So close was he, I felt, to the man, as he embraced Dylan Thomas’s written words – words that he loved so well.
Lydia Poole was no less impressive, hinting at Taylor’s hesitant uncertainty in taking on a role that she felt was beyond her capabilities as an actress (the part was originally intended for Bette Davis). Yet Ms Poole also conveys (with great ease) the physical beauty that the world became enraptured of, whilst revelling in an honest, bawdy, sexual vulgarity that regularly ensnared Burton’s immediate attention. Something that always made him ponder and smile, as he put down his whisky glass.
Yet it was through Burton’s cajoling and confident assurances that she would capture the role of Martha for all that it was worth, that enabled her to give a convincing performance in the film, and eventually win her a second Oscar. However, it was this particular triumph that would sow the seeds of their eventual mutual destruction. Burton’s professional jealousy (he would never win an Oscar) towards his wife, fuelled by copious amounts of alcohol, would fester deep within him, with the result that their relationship would never fully recover.
The two performers, with believable authority, bicker and bite, snarl and swear, whilst belittling each other physically, emotionally and professionally during the course of the play. And yet the two leading actors also skilfully express the underlying passion, desire and love they truly felt for one another.
And so if this enduring tale of The Prince of Players & The Queen of Hollywood still intrigues you, this play is a must see. Not a simple story of boy meets girl, but a story of two combustible cinematic deities, who loved and hated with equal passion. Complete with the echoing sound of rattling jewellery, the rustling of divorce papers, and the clinking of empty gin & vodka bottles.