The unravelling of a legend

Rhodri Miles as Richard Burton, taken by Kirsten Mcternan. (s)

Rhodri Miles as Richard Burton, taken by Kirsten Mcternan. (s)

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Gwynne Edwards’ triumphant show peeled back the Hollywood skin of fame, fortune and romance to reveal a man hollowed by guilt and regret.

Articulate and commanding, actor Richard Burton was famed throughout his career as “The Voice”.

Developed for clarity on stage and later flirting with the media, perhaps Burton’s voice - this identity - became a mask to drown out echoes of guilt.

Rhodri Miles must be applauded for capturing these complexities in one-man play, Burton, staged at The Burnley Mechanics last Sunday. His was a funny and charming voice, tinged with fear and sadness.

He walked the audience through Burton’s life, from his childhood growing up in a poor family in Wales to his stage success and marriage breakdown. The second act covered both his career in film and tempestuous romance with Elizabeth Taylor, as they swirled further down the sinkhole of alcohol addiction.

The unravelling of a legend set against a stark lounge – a chair, a table, a tumbler of alcohol – draws an authentic and ironic picture. While Rhodri charmingly painted Burton’s colourful life, visually the play was stripped down to the few things that perhaps truly shaped him: home; words; alcohol; and guilt, yawning like the shadows that swamped the rest of the stage.

The setting complemented the conversational style: I felt as though at home with the star, sharing drinks, jokes and secrets. There couldn’t be a more intimate imitation. The audience was shown the startling contrast between Burton’s bleak inner world and his exterior life of fame, one swamped by a cacophony of fans, cameras and diamonds.

There were pockets of vulnerability to Rhodri’s performance and unflinching honesty about the darker aspects of Burton’s life. He showcased a terrific range, depicting a complex hybrid of emotions: passion, for language; guilt, for leaving his family; love for his wife, Elizabeth; plus grief and fear, numbed by alcohol, sex, money and comedy. Rhodri penetrated, untangled and rewove the layers of depth to Burton’s character that charmed, inspired and infuriated audiences over his lifetime.

It was a fascinating show weaving threads of glamour and tragedy and offering pools of insight into a man who, paradoxically, becomes all the more a mystery, the more I learn.