Theater archives

Highballs and Some Tight-Fitting British Tweeds, Circa 1968


Welsh womanizer, chronic boozer, and commanding actor with a golden voice and mean self-destructive streak, Richard Burton may have been his own most challenging role. His life was hopelessly complicated even before Liz Taylor entered the picture (twice): he suffered the childhood loss of his mother and the daily domestic earthquakes of his alcoholic father. Like so many of his kind, the theater was both rescuer from futility and magnifier of bitter insecurities—which perhaps explains why he kept returning to the stage only to fly in paranoid retreat back to the unthinking glare of Hollywood.

The whole bleak-glorious history is summarized in the Irish Rep’s production of Playing Burton, a solo character study written and directed by Mark Jenkins and featuring Brian Mallon as our helplessly histrionic protagonist. Beginning in a somewhat pedestrian manner, Burton emerges from the dark to interrupt his radio broadcast obituary, not quite ready to concede the last word. He relates (sometimes as corrective biography, others as drunken ramble) the tale of his rocky upbringing redeemed by sisterly love, the acting teacher who became both mentor and surrogate father (and from whom he took his last name), the first flush of rave reviews followed by years of critical carpet bombing, and, of course, the myriad marriages and highballs. The insights of Jenkins’s profile may be People magazine league, but the occasionally crisp phrases cry out for Burton’s velvet accent.

Mallon bears a fair resemblance to his blue-eyed subject, especially in tight-fitting British tweeds, circa 1968. He has the swagger, self-love, and sinister rumble down to a T. What he doesn’t possess (and who can fault him?) is the same genius of personality, the charismatic alchemy that for better and worse lifts a gifted actor into the supernova realm of stardom.