Richard Burton swaggers on to a bible-black stage, intoning a fairytale in that drawling velvet baritone. He growls and snarls, grinding out his story as we find ourselves held captive by that voice and the force of the great man’s inescapable charisma.
For those of us who never had the chance to see Burton on stage, this is probably as close as we can get. Staged, appropriately enough, in a pub – Islington’s Old Red Lion pub theatre – writer-director Dhanil Ali’s hour-long play The Liz & Dick Show looks inside the marriage of Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
Or one of their marriages, at least. We first see the pair on the set of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Burton is living out his role as George: dully domestic but cruel, snapping beastly asides to his ‘blimp’ of a wife as he lolls in his cardigan and horn-rimmed specs. Taylor is more than a match for the miner’s son. Perhaps she lacks his eloquence, but she makes up for it with fury and sneering disdain. She’s at once Martha and Cleopatra: Burton’s queen.
In real life, as on stage, the Burton-Taylor marriage swung wildly from passion to hatred. Bust-up turned to reconciliation which turned to bust-up, day-to-day and marriage-to-marriage. Ali has them playing out this love and loathing from minute-to-minute, and Burton’s diaries indicate that this isn’t far from the mark.
On April Fool’s Day 1966: “At lunch I left the table snarling, ‘You’ll excuse me, I’m in a bad mood.’ Shumdit [Taylor] said with her usual immense tact, ‘Really, Richard?’ I snarled again something witty like ‘shut your mouth’ and went tramping furiously over our few acres. When I returned I kissed Shumdit better and then began to attack again. Then we kissed it all better again.”
‘Shumdit’, you’ll note, is a Spoonerism.
In November 1969 Burton wrote: “It must be emphasised that though the words used are innocuous, the speaking of them is instinct with venomous malice.” That malice is more than adequately portrayed in The Liz & Dick Show. At times the screamed bitching elicits visible flinches from the audience. In the Old Red Lion’s small space it’s impossible to get away from the dark side of the Burton-Taylor glamour.
Thankfully the bitterness is leavened by real affection. Somewhere in those moments when Burton jokes about Taylor’s bowels (“farting like a coal-cutter on pay night”) and she jokes about his pedantry, lies a knife-edge: it’s hard to tell whether the couple are about to tip into banter or battle. Ali exploits this tension well. Here, lest we forget, we’re watching the story of a real couple whose farcical duelling really did lapse unpredictably into furious recrimination. This is a marriage which we know can’t survive.
Both Lydia Poole, as Taylor, and Ken McConnell, as Burton, give studied performances which steer clear of caricature and melodrama. McConnell, in particular, is extraordinary. His rumbling Welsh drawl is pitch-perfect, as best demonstrated when he recites a couple of verses from Under Milk Wood. This may well be one of the most compelling two minutes of theatre in London at the moment.
Exeunt readers can get £5 off tickets to The Liz and Dick Show at the Old Red Lion until 31st January 2015. Quote ‘Taylor’ when booking. Box Office: 0844 412 4307