Theatre and book reviews by Janice Dempsey
Not that this is a depressing account of Elizabeth Taylor’s chaotic life. Over and over again humour breaks through after the most intense moments, as Taylor proudly gathers up her strength and presses on along the turbulent path that she has chosen. Glorying in her sexual magnetism, unashamedly hedonistic, she commands the stage, And yet this is not a portrait of a stereotypical diva. The performance at Leith Hill Place was intimate and close-up: we sat a few feet away and through Claire Malcomson's intense recreation of Taylor were introduced gradually to the complex, warm human being as well as to the larger-than-life, dramatic personality.
The production by Darren Cheek and Tony Earnshaw (Damn Cheek Productions) is a tightly choreographed and disciplined 70 minutes with no break. Music is in the air at times, redirecting to another era, another filmset, another place, a change of mood. The pace is excellent and uninterrupted by scene or costume changes. Claire Malcolmson's rich and nuanced performance provides all that's needed beyond a chair, a nightstand and a drinks trolley.
We meet Elizabeth Taylor in middle age, distraught and wailing for a drink after losing the love of her life. She looks back on her journey from early child-stardom in “National Velvet”, through six marriages before the age of thirty-two, a glamorous Hollywood career, a spiral into addiction, cure and relapse. She speaks directly to us, sometimes as “all of you out there”, but more often as “Michael”. Listening to her memories and reliving her highs and lows, we deputise for Michael Jackson, whom Taylor recognised as a kindred spirit, equally damaged by an unhappy childhood and equally ready to use his wealth to escape into “Neverland”. Their strange relationship became legendary after the death of her other soul-mate, Richard Burton. But it seems to be Mike Todd, the father of her children, whose death she’s mourning in her opening lines.
“Sex is what drives us, friendship is what rescues us,” says Elizabeth. We learn that not all her relationships with men were based on sexual love: in the 1980’s the death from AIDS of Rock Hudson helped her to raise awareness and fund research into its cure, and she admits that she loved him as her very dear friend, not her lover.
Her long, passionate and mutually destructive relationship with Richard Burton was quite another matter. The harrowing emotional rollercoaster of it, the addiction to alcohol and drugs that accompanied it and her grief at his death brought tears to my eyes.
This woman who was in films as a child actress (“I never had a supporting actor with fewer than four legs till I was sixteen!”), and who felt her life circumscribed by fame, learned to use her power to help others at the last. Sex was a language she mastered, but friendship gave her life its meaning.
Tony Earnshaw's well-researched and thoughtful play sheds light on this life, at once so successful and so personally tragic. It's one more in Tony Earnshaw's oeuvre of successful plays which are launched from Surrey and have the legs to carry them on. "Doors", produced last year in Dorking, subsequently played New York for three weeks, as well as London and a national tour. "Sex is Another Language" with Claire Malcolmson has had its debut at Leith Hill and in the Guildford Fringe, and will be back in Surrey after the summer break. After that, many more audiences should see this original production. We loved it and gave it five stars without hesitaion.