Cleo: When Elizabeth Taylor Met Richard Burton and the World Gasped

Playwright Lawrence Wright and Lisa Birnbaum (Elizabeth Taylor) in Houston last year.
Playwright Lawrence Wright and Lisa Birnbaum (Elizabeth Taylor) in Houston last year. Photo by Lynn Lane

Lisa Birnbaum grew up thinking, as many people did, that Elizabeth Taylor was the most beautiful; woman in the world. "Everybody loved her. She was so glamorous."

Now, Birnbaum, who holds an MFA from the Yale School of Drama, has taken on the daunting task of playing Taylor in Lawrence Wright's world premiering play at the Alley Theatre about the meeting between Taylor and Richard Burton on the set of the movie Cleopatra. And, of course, about the scandalous love affair that followed.

Before she went in to audition, she spent "a solid 24 hours" watching movies and clips of Taylor and researching what was going on in the star's live when the movie Cleopatra was filmed.

Cleo is set in 1963 when mores regarding movie stars were much stricter among a public that wanted these actors and actresses to behave a certain way. Taylor was already in trouble because she and Eddie Fisher had gotten together which broke up his marriage with Debbie Reynolds. Scandals then lasted a long time; not the 24-hour news cycle we often have today.

"This play is about the moment in time while they were shooting what became to be the most expensive movie at the time ever made when Elizabeth Taylor met Richard Burton and the extraordinary love affair that follows," Birnbaum says.

"She was already on her fourth husband. I think she felt she had already had her great love with Mike Todd. When he died while she was playing in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, she was so devastated. Eddie Fisher helped her get through her mourning. When she met Richard I think she was blindsided.  I don't think she had any idea it was even humanly possible to fall in love so deeply and so maybe even insanely. But she did. And it was a massive scandal."

"Their affair kind of mirrors what happened between Antony and Cleopatra. How desperately in love they fell," Birnbaum says. "So it all feels a bit cosmic and a bit overwhelming,"

Performances are scheduled for April 6-29 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For information call 713-220-5700 or visit $26-$96.
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
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