Burton’s Last call Espionage

Call it a coincidence, but here I was encountering Mr Richard Burton (or someone acting on his behalf!) two days in a row at the Fringe.

However, unlike the previous production, this was not a two-hander, but an engrossingly entertaining one-man exploration into the often booze-riddled psyche of the celebrated Welsh actor, by the very accomplished George Telfer. And appropriately enough, considering Burton’s all-consuming love of the drink, the show was performed in a small, cosy lounge room, deep within the bowels of an Edinburgh pub. Burton, I am convinced, would have approved.

Mr Telfer has appeared in many guises over the years, and has been a frequent and welcome visitor to the Edinburgh Fringe. In fact, last year he inhabited the personality of Prince Philip, no less, so I was eagerly waiting his delve into the Burton mystique.

The show begins, as Burton (following several years absence from the stage) is attempting a major Broadway comeback, with the production of Equus. Telfer’s interpretation of Burton at this junction of his career evokes much soul-searching, as he ruminates on how his life has been shaped and formed by elements outwith his control.
From the rugged coal dust deprivations of the Welsh mining town of his birth, to the giddy and gaudy heights of stage acclaim and Hollywood excess, Mr Telfer guides his audience with a deft hand.

At the same time he interrupts his story with regular gulps from a bottle, and then begins to quote fiery extracts from a number of Shakespeare’s plays. In fact, there was one mightily impressive section during the hour, in which Telfer (as Burton) recited a large chunk of Henry V – backwards!I got the impression that the majority of the audience were agog at his unorthodox mastery of the verse.

This particularly skilled feat turned out to be a particular favourite party trick of Burton’s when attempting to impress many of the great and the good during his first visits to Hollywood. And Mr Telfer replicated this impeccably, to the audience’s warm appreciation.

All in all, George Telfer once more proves to be a most engaging storyteller, blending sharp off-the-cuff humour with a grim insight into Burton’s unique gifts that fatalistically carried with it an almost Faustian foreboding. His passionate and humanising portrait of this flawed talent from the Welsh valleys, as he ruefully looks back over the journey of his life, is one worth exploring.

And even at the show’s close, the strange, mystifying alchemy that brought a young boy out of dark impoverishment, and then guided him towards a life beyond his wildest dreams, remains partially unanswered.

And even if your prior knowledge to the life and work of Richard Burton doesn’t stretch any further than the media circus surrounding his marriages to Elizabeth Taylor, this performance will go a long way in shedding just a tiny shaft of light.

Lawrence Lettice