Theatre in Wales

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Burton Y Gyfrinach- Slow Bio-Drama

Broadcast Media Reporting The Arts

Green Bay , S4/C , January-23-12
Broadcast Media Reporting The Arts by Green Bay January, a thin month for theatre, is a good time to look back at broadcast drama. “Burton Y Gyfrinach?” occupied a prime time slot, ninety minutes on 27th December, up against the much-puffed “Great Expectations” re-make.

The commemorations of Richard Burton have accelerated in recent years. Mark Jenkins’ play “Playing Burton” (1993) is Wales’ most enduring theatre piece. Gwynne Edwards’ “Burton” (2010) toured to acclaim. April 10th 2010 saw the late Elizabeth Taylor at a gala event at Buckingham Palace. June 2011 the bust bronze from that event was unveiled in Cardiff and RWCMD’s theatre inaugurated. Also last year Tom Rubython published a new door-stopper of a biography. In November Michael Sheen unveiled a plaque in Lyndhurst Road, London.

S4C’s film for Christmas covers a single day in June 1968 in Switzerland. On that day Richard Burton’s elder brother Ifor fell and broke his neck. Michael Munn’s biography of 2008 records that Ifor Burton caught his foot in a grille. In Tom Rubython’s narrative the grille slid along the ground when Burton’s foot stood on it. The film chooses to stage a struggle, inside the house, between the two brothers and a fall without an intervening object to cause a fracture.

To make drama is to engage in a moral act. The devisers of this piece wander in that no-man's land of dramatised documentary. The facts of that day may never be known. That is enough; they need not be known. So the film is neither documentary, since it is not tethered to those facts that the biographers record. But nor is it drama with that genre’s complexity and wider resonance.

Wales Online on December 2nd trailed the film as being “controversial.” (The article also had Ifor morphing into Ifan.) That is an over-statement. You either believe it proper for artists of 2011 to depict an artist of a previous age in a light that is supported less by what evidence may be available than the “fruit of imagination.” Or you may believe it is impudent and fail to grasp the artistic motivation.

Tom Rubython’s book is unabashedly populist in style and treatment. “Burton Y Gyfrinach?” is esoteric in filmic style. In pace it resembles “Sleep Furiously” without that film’s intense focus on its reality of upland Ceredigion. The influence of Terrence Malick is strong, in the close-ups of a poppy in bloom, a low-placed shot of a field of grass, the use of voice-over, the flattened-out dramatic pacing.

The camera will gaze at a full moon for fifty-seconds. A shot poised above a glass will watch the bubbles in a drink for forty seconds. Two characters will walk along a path for a minute and a quarter. It is an uncommon televisual language. Whether a silent man with a drink and a cigarette for over a minute engages or not is in the end personal taste. Myself, I like the crackle of “Borgen”, but then I like drama.

Television managers adore bio-drama. Some are good- the Philip Larkin “Love Again” (2003) is illuminating. Some, like “Eric and Ernie”(2010), are blatant hagiography. And in some cases, to be frank, who really wants to know? The budget took the crew to Switzerland- an overcast place of crepuscular interiors- but only ran to two actors. The slenderness of the plot may have been the determinant of the style. Or it may have been a deliberate choice of aesthetic.

2010 was a year of turbulence for S4/C. This Burton piece looks determinedly unpopulist. A single scene in a restaurant lasts fifteen minutes. An empty table is considered suitable for a static shot of fifteen seconds. I could not help thinking what their writers would have achieved with Peggy Olsen or Sarah Lund in fifteen minutes. I found the music (uncredited), choral, then violin-led, over-insistent.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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