Call Me Elizabeth, written and performed by Kayla Boye, is a sumptuous look at the life of Elizabeth Taylor shortly after she received her Oscar for Butterfield 8 and recovered from a bout the pneumonia which nearly killed her. A solo performance based around Taylor’s real-life conversations with biographer, Max Lerner, director Erin Kraft has created a piece of theatre which is both intimate and carefully guarded.
Opening with a view of Taylor’s luxurious dressing table, the glamour and opulence which she exuded in public is made clearly a part of her persona even at this early point in her career. Stacks of gossip magazines with her face on the cover litter the coffee table and Boye elegantly stands, in a classic little black dress, with sparkling diamonds adorning her ears, before delicately stepping into her black stiletto shoes.
Boye greets the unseen biographer and pours champagne, which he declines, but she declares is the ideal companion for any occasion. Looking ruefully at the magazines around her, Boye states that she has been thinking about writing a biography following her recent brush with death and how it must be honest and about the real her, Elizabeth, and not the Liz who inadvertently seeks out scandal.
Looking back over her career, Taylor states that she feels National Velvet was her best work and she resents receiving the Oscar for Butterfield 8 due to its subject matter. Jumping back and forth in time gives the piece a realistic quality as Taylor remembers details which she goes back to before continuing with the linear narrative of her life so far. Musing on being part of the Hollywood scene, Taylor points out that was intimidated by Katharine Hepburn, and was bemused that other people were intimidated by her. Developing early, she felt like a child in a woman’s body, and the stifling atmosphere of the film studio made her crave for the freedom to make her own decisions.
A key part of the story is of course her serial marriages, the first of which was to the abusive Nicky Hilton which was used to promote her film, Father of the Bride. Taylor tells us that the controlling environment of studio life being exchanged for an equally stifling marriage left her a shadow of herself and it is easy to see how she craved the stability she thought a marriage to the older Michael Wilding could give her.
Boye’s wry sense of humour brings a delightful cheek to her role as the Hollywood icon. There is also a delicacy to her portrayal as she anxiously watches her daughter take a swimming lesson out of the hotel window. A spasm in her back leaves her grimacing in pain and grabbing the painkillers which plagued her life, and the symptoms of her back condition, regularly resurface throughout the interview, highlighting Taylor’s health issues and allowing it to become part of her, rather than a core point of the story, something which is often neglected when showing representations of health issues in the creative arts.
Boye maintains a certain coyness throughout the piece as Taylor realises, she has revealed too much information, for example about Rock Hudson’s personal life, and quickly withdraws it, threatening her biographer with scandal if he reveals the details publicly. This creates a sense of an honest story being told and edited live to protect the people that she loved and respected.
Regular phone calls interfere the conversation and Taylor is clearly bothered by everyone who is calling and the constant pressure to be available.
Happy memories, like inventing the chocolate martini with Hudson, are contrasted with devastating ones, like the sudden death of Mike Todd which left her reeling. The high moral values of her upbringing are used to defend her marrying Eddie Fisher, as she didn’t feel that she could have an affair and maintains that Debbie Reynolds was no innocent in the situation. Boye creates a real sense of Taylor’s exhaustion with gossip, Hollywood and being Liz Taylor, who must be held to a higher standard than everyone else and is never allowed to make a mistake. Boye creates a strong sense of emotional upheaval and regret over certain aspects of Taylor’s life.
Call Me Elizabeth is an interesting look at a rarely talked about period of Taylor’s life. After her tumultuous relationship with Richard Burton, she is rarely mentioned except in the context of being his wife, twice, and marrying several other men. For this piece however, Boye has chosen to save only a hint at Taylor’s future with Burton as Cleopatra is resurrected following Taylor’s serious illness. This is the story of Taylor as a daughter, a child star, a wife, a mother and actress before Burton. Who she was to become and how she got there is all laid out in a glamourous hotel room as she reveals the secrets of her friends and family, while remaining determined that certain things must not be spoken of outside of those walls. Boye presents Taylor as a woman who has learned what trusting too eagerly and easily can do, but cannot close her open and honest nature, particularly as the champagne continues to flow.
Call Me Elizabeth is being streamed by Edinburgh Fringe until 30th August 2021. Tickets are available here https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/call-me-elizabeth
Reviewer: Donna M Day
Reviewed: 15th August 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★