A million years ago, the first time I ever saw a show in London, it was something my grandmother picked: Little Foxes with Elizabeth Taylor. It wasn’t a show I cared for (or knew anything about) although I noted the audience applauded, just like they do today, when the aged actress walked on stage. “Her eyes are still so beautful,” my grandma cooed, although to me she was already no more than a character out of the tabloids: aging, leathery, and overmarried.
Still, thirty some odd years later, I was intrigued by the premise of The Liz and Dick Show: two in/famous actors, backstage, take the gloves off and really let each other have it. In my imagination, it was going to be something like Kiss Me Kate but with drugs, alcohol, and lots of swearing. Mmm mmm a down and dirty catfight between two people who really had chips on their shoulders!
In retrospect, though, I recognize that I really have no idea of what conflict existed between these two people, and just the vaguest idea of why their marriage ended (information probably gleaned from The Intimate Sex Lives of Famous People, which I read around the same time I saw Foxes). The play posits that they had a really strong sexual connection, but that Burton was constantly teasing Taylor – quite cruelly – because he considered her rather ignorant and not much of an actress. The scenes in which he mocks her (as well as stupid, he also keeps calling her fat) were actively painful for me to watch: this was funny? And there was Liz, seemingly unbothered by any of it. It was as if the actress had been told to look like Taylor, but the writer had neglected to give her a person to make come to life. The effect was of having a giant, drunk, tan doll on stage that someone else was trying to poke until he could make it come to life.
Was this play actually a realistic representation of how these two actors interacted backstage? If so, they were more tedious than I could have ever imagined. I think I learned some things about both of them as historical
figures, while never believing in the reality of the characters on stage. I was hoping for some catty fun, but in retrospect I’d be better off rereading my book and settling down to watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Now that would be an evening well spent.