Nearly 30 years after his death, Richard Burton still stands tall among the ghosts of Hollywood, the poor boy from a Welsh mining village whose acting talent and ambition took him to not just the heights of his profession, but also celebrity and notoriety – most obviously through his tempestuous relationship with (and two marriages to) Elizabeth Taylor.
George Telfer is no lookalike for Burton, but in this beautifully performed, intimate one man show, he near-perfectly embodies the man who was born Richard Walter Jenkins, showing us his many passions and complexities. As an audience we've somehow found ourselves invited into Burton's dressing room, half an hour before he goes on stage in the Broadway production of Equus. Telfer works this concept well, naturally riffing on anecdotes to accommodate late arrivals and his favoured audience members. For, with a glass and bottle of vodka nearly constantly in his hand, it appears that a stage-frightened Richard Burton is in a chatty, reminiscent mood, happy to explain himself and a life lived hard but lived well.
Given its format, this is a surprisingly adept example of 'show', not just 'tell'; yes, we are directly told the outline of Burton's life, as well as about the siblings, teachers and mentors who recognised his ‘Gift’ and helped him escape the world of poverty into which he'd been born. But it's in the personal doubts, the passions and (not least) the personal comparisons with Taylor's own 'privileged' upbringing that we learn even more about a man who was '(for) most of the time... a pretty decent drunk'.
Luck and talent can be dangerous, we're told – and it's obvious Burton had both in spades – but, if his relationship with Taylor was too often just a competition to find out 'who could scream the loudest', there was also the sense that the man Jenkins rather than the actor Burton never fully escaped his origins.
By setting the play at such a particular point of Burton's career, we are of course bereft of its final ending – not just his death, but his latter-day successes on Broadway and on film (most notably his final role opposite John Hurt in the acclaimed film adaptation of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four). But that, perhaps, is for the best; as Telfer's Burton leaves the dressing room for the unseen stage, we're left remembering a man who was very much alive.