IT’S A dangerous business, writing plays which are – or can be interpreted as being – about real historical figures. In a programme note to Birmingham Rep’s recent production of Duet For One, now on tour in Edinburgh, the playwright Tom Kempinski flatly denies that the story it tells, of a great female violinist struck down in mid-career by multiple sclerosis, has anything to do with the life of Jacqueline Du Pre, the legendary English cellist who died in 1987, 14 years after her career was ended by the disease.
Duet For One, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh ***
The Burton Taylor Affair, Oran Mor, Glasgow **
Yet given its first appearance in 1980, at the height of Du Pre’s illness, it was always inevitable that a story which mirrored her remarkable and tragic experience so closely would be seen in that light; and this sense of witnessing something that is not entirely fictional, and should perhaps have remained private, hangs heavily around the play, even today.
What remains, though, is a beautifully structured drama, set over six sessions between the heroine, Stephanie Abrahams, and her psychiatrist Dr Feldmann, in which he gradually leads her to recognise all that her life as a musician has meant to her, and the depth of the bereavement she must acknowledge, before she can reach any new balance.
Almost 40 years on, it’s striking how hostile the audience seems to Dr Feldmann, and his exploratory efforts. Where once he might have been seen as an authority figure leading Stephanie through a necessary process, today’s audience tend to laugh along with her in her deep, defensive antagonism to him, even when her remarks seem bigoted or even a touch anti-Semitic; the texture of Kempinski’s writing is very witty, and Belinda Lang and Oliver Cotton have their work cut out, under 21st century conditions, to persuade the audience to feel Stephanie’s pain, instead of just laughing at her jokes.
In the end, though, the play emerges, as ever, as a beautifully written meditation on how to survive great loss, and at least to begin the search for new meaning; and Lang and Cotton give every line its full value, in a production by Robin Lefevre that’s simple but searching, and exquisitely lit by Ian Scott.
This week’s Play, Pie And Pint show The Burton Taylor Affair, by contrast, is a first play by Welsh actor and director Steven Elliott – co produced with the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff – in which the writing about two famous real-life figures leaves something to be desired, despite the strength of the subject.
Set in some post-death limbo where they have a chance to review their time together, the play features a slightly shapeless half-hour dialogue between stage and screen legends Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, reflecting on how they met and fell in love, how they drank and argued in spectacular style across the global jet-set stage of the 1960s and 70s, and how they separated, physically at least, after marrying twice, and living together for 12 turbulent years.
In Chelsey Gillard’s low-key, slightly static production, Vivien Reid succeeds in capturing something of Taylor’s famous combination of high-powered glamour and sharp, earthy intelligence, while Dewi Rhys Williams, playing Burton in an excessively elegant polo neck and sports jacket, seems a million miles from the legendary rolling voice and sheer animal force that Burton brought to their relationship.
And Elliott’s play, or sketch for a play, urgently needs to ask itself the question why, or why now; since at the moment, it leaves us with no clue about which aspect of this brilliant, charismatic couple interests him most, or where the real drama of his play might ultimately lie, if he were ever to write it in full.