Theatre in Wales

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“Rich” Finale to RWCMD’s Gala Day in Celebration of Richard Burton

Public Event

RWCMD Cardiff- Richard Burton Commemoration , Dora Stoutzker Hall , June 30, 2011
Public Event by  RWCMD Cardiff- Richard Burton Commemoration The Dora Stoutzker Hall feels uplifting. It has height and space, and no doubt the acoustics worthy of the music whose function it is to hold. If it is all about the musicians of the future and composers-to-be the Royal College chose to inaugurate it with an event that was both celebration and tribute to the past.

Kim Howells was Chair for this gathering of six family members, friends and colleagues of Richard Burton. The format was a couple of sofas, a chair and a glass of water. The guests were invited in one by one, chatshow-style. They produced moments of rip-roaring laughter and moments of poignancy. Collectively, they told a lot of truth about Richard Burton. There was more truth to him, and much went unsaid over these ninety minutes, but that is testament to a human being of such gargantuan gift.

Rhianon James Trowell is Richard Burton’s niece, but in the complicated Jenkins family only a few years apart in age. She is the well nigh perfect guest with a capacity for reminiscence that is enlivened but also composed and crisp. The most lasting image she left was that of the young teenager conducting Rossini to himself in a mirror in the little house in Taibach. It is the small detail in narrative that hits home. In that wartime household a mixture of flour and water would be used in place of a manufactured glue which was too expensive.

The stage was framed with two large pictures of Burton. It is the nature of film to generate the most familiar images. “The Wild Geese” is still to be seen quite regularly late night on that intriguing channel Movies4Men; “the Klansman” is less frequent but also regular. But the image on the Dora Stoutzker stage was a photograph taken by Angus McBean of the Burton of Stratford. It showed the twenty-six year old as Prince Hal donning the crown while his father lies dying.

Robert Hardy and Clare Bloom were both there in 1951 and on stage in Cardiff in 2011. A term over-used about theatre that it is ephemeral. It is a frame of mind that equates the durable with the material. All that can be said that two actors of great accomplishment were debating sixty years on whether a performance of Coriolanus outshone that of a Prince Hal.

Jeff Wayne’s warmth of memory over Burton’s hologram appearance in “War of the Worlds” was manifest. Of all the guests it was he who had been engaged in new projects right up to the time of the death. Kate Burton had earlier in the day unveiled the bust that now stands in the College’s atrium. An articulate speaker she spoke movingly of a unique childhood and her father’s encouragement into a notable acting career of her own.

Lastly, Victor Spinetti came on stage not just as a fellow actor and friend but as an early alumnus of the Royal College. A story from the set of “the Taming of the Shrew” contained razor sharp imitations of Zeffirelli, Michael Hordern and Cyril Cusack but ended on a Burton punch-line of hilarity. He had another story about a poem that he himself had written. Spinetti was in truth an actor in performance, but it was one of unabashed exuberance. “Gleeful” was the word he chose, more than once, for Burton. It is a good word, and it occurred when he was interviewed earlier in the day on BBC Wales. It referred, of course, to Burton the social creature, the roisterer, the party animal.

That his larger-than-life gusto infected those he worked with is clear. But Richard Burton is different from other actors. The difference is that he left notebooks, three hundred thousand words worth of observation and inner experience. His notebook for 10th January 1969 runs “the more I read about man and his maniacal ruthlessness and his murdering envious scatological soul the more I realize that he will never change. Our stupidity is immortal, nothing will ever change it. The same mistakes, the same prejudices, the same injustice, the same lusts wheel endlessly around the parade-ground of the centuries. Immutable and ineluctable. I wish I could believe in a God of some kind but I simply cannot.” This is not your typical celebrity with a leaning to scientolology.

It was clearly an emotional role that Kim Howells had opted to play. As a schoolboy in Mountain Ash, he said, it was the soaring precocious success of Burton that said to him and his contemporaries they could be anything. The naming of the theatre was, he said, an act of reclamation. “Why so many bad films?” he asked. Claire Bloom made a forthright reply. “We all do bad films.” But of course, no film looks bad at the start. Stanley Baker chose a series of low-budget thrillers. “Perfect Friday” now looks like excruciating camp but half a dozen of them look terrific in 2011.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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