The enviable A Play, A Pie and A Pint initiative has been running, based out of Glasgow’s Òran Mór venue, since 2004. Currently, there are 38 productions a year, often featuring the work of new writers, generally co-produced with partner venues, and given week-long lunchtime runs, with a drink and a pie included in the ticket price.
Courtesy of Sherman Theatre’s Artistic Director Rachel O’Riordan’s continuing links with Scotland, every now and again a production with a Welsh connection comes to Cardiff, transplanted to an early evening slot. This time, it’s the writing debut of Steven Paul, who (under the name Steven Elliot) is better known as an actor – he starred in the Sherman’s production of Conor McPherson’s The Weir in 2016.
The Burton Taylor Affair is directed by Chelsey Gillard, who was recently at the helm for My Name Is Rachel Corrie at The Other Room. Despite being another biographical drama dealing with iconic individual narratives, however, this is by some distance the less intriguing work.
In their day, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were among the most famous film actors in the world, their relationship beginning in headline-making adulterous style in 1961 on the set of Cleopatra, and continuing, with sporadic breaks, until 1976. Cinema-goers were entranced to see aspects of their combustible marriage played out on-screen, particularly in The Taming Of The Shrew and Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.
Appropriately, The Burton Taylor Affair takes place in a kind of Hollywood Neverland. The backdrop is dominated by a Warhol-esque portrait of Vivien Reid as Taylor; the remainder of Gemma Patchett and Johnathan Scott’s set features an opulent chaise-longue and a somewhat over-crowded drinks-trolley. As we first encounter Reid and Dewi Rhys Williams as Burton, they are shouting biographical details at one another. Both dressed in black, it is made clear that they are telling a tale rather than fully inhabiting their characters.
What follows is a canter through a troubled liaison, containing few insights which could not be gleaned from Wikipedia. We learn that both are hard drinkers, Burton catastrophically so; that both are given to infidelity; and that feverish off-screen rivalry fuels their on-screen fireworks. Unfortunately, this information is conveyed via much un-ironic use of clichés.
Paul’s script occasionally touches on some potentially fruitful areas – the pull of self-destructive addiction, the nature of obsessive love/lust, the difference between great stage acting and great screen acting, the extent to which wealth corrupts etc. It fails to dig deep, however, and might have been more powerful had the action been situated securely at some point of crisis (such the night, which is alluded to, when Taylor won an Oscar and Burton didn’t), so that their interpersonal angst and psychological flaws could be explored in more telling detail.
Williams certainly captures something of Burton’s charisma and egotism, and Reid alternates between kittenish and catty with some effectiveness (aided by an eye-catching dress). The drama only truly comes to life at brief moments, though – when they are quoting Shakespeare at one another, or during a screaming argument.
There are a few scandalous laughs to be had, and the piece is certainly diverting on the level of a half-hour “behind the headlines” TV profile. In its failure to truly dramatise a fascinating relationship, however, The Burton Taylor Affair must go down as a shallow, unsatisfying missed opportunity.