David Llewellyn reviews Becoming Richard Burton, a special exhibition held at the National Museum Cardiff which tells the story of how the young Welsh boy became an international star.
Say the name “Richard Burton” and it might conjure any number of facets of the man’s life and career. There’s the voice, perhaps first and foremost, especially for those of us who grew up listening to our parents’ copy of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds.
“No-one would have believed in the last years of the 19th Century…”
Then those eyes; piercing and soulful in Look Back in Anger, vulpine and menacing in later fares such as Villain and The Medusa Touch.
There’s his off-again-on-again marriage to Elizabeth Taylor, sparked by their affair, both on and off-screen, during the making of Cleopatra. There’s the boozing and schmoozing with Europe’s high society, from the Prince and Princess of Monaco to Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia. There are the yachts and jets and the 68-carat diamond that to this day bears his and Taylor’s names, forever hyphenated.
In Burton’s case, this wasn’t the name he was born with. The people of Pontrhydyfen, in the Afan Valley, knew him as Richard Jenkins. It was his teacher, and later legal guardian Philip Burton who lent him the name by which he became famous.
All this and more is documented in National Museum Wales’ exhibition, Becoming Richard Burton. Early on we see his birth certificate, bearing the Jenkins family name, and relics from his schooldays. There are photos of him as a young rugby player and cricketer, and entries in immaculate cursive from his teenage diary. There are some charming mementoes from his three years in the RAF, including postcards sent home to his family from Canada and the US and a trunk festooned with faded stickers. Gradually the artefacts of Burton’s life become significantly grander, with playbills from his early theatrical successes and a costume from his stint as Henry V.
Perhaps of greater interest to movie fans are the costumes from Cleopatra, including two of the sixty-eight designed for Elizabeth Taylor in the title role. A series of candid monochrome pictures of Burton taken by fellow Welshman Angus McBean capture something of the actor’s intensity and his seductive mischief.
Elsewhere, a display of original film posters provides a quick overview of Burton’s artistic ups and downs. For every bona fide classic such as Where Eagles Dare and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? there is an unmitigated dud like Exorcist II: The Heretic or the ill-conceived gay comedy Staircase. Celebrated by critic Kenneth Tynan as Olivier’s rightful heir, there’s often a wistful note to later appraisals, suggesting that Burton’s career was one of diminishing returns. Certainly, the legendary drinking, exacerbated by the death of his brother, resulted in some poor choices and subpar performances, but to focus on them does a disservice to films such as Equus, The Medusa Touch and 1984, in which Burton is still very much a screen presence to be reckoned with.
Towards the end of the exhibition bibliophiles and those familiar with the diaries will be pleased to discover a display featuring a selection from Burton’s personal library. Together with his recordings of poetry by Yeats, Wilfred Owen and – most famously – Dylan Thomas, they’re a welcome reminder that Burton was a product of the mining valleys’ vibrant intellectual life.
There were some inclusions I found curious at first, like the small wooden desk of a type Burton might have used as a schoolboy or the wireless radios on which someone may have listened to the 1954 production of Under Milk Wood. In hindsight, I think they sit comfortably among the photographs, diaries and costumes. They may lack the razzle-dazzle of a frock worn by Elizabeth Taylor or the intimacy of seeing Richard Burton’s handwriting up close, but they are a useful illustration, particularly for younger visitors, of the world in which Jenkins became Burton.
The Becoming Richard Burton exhibition is due to continue at National Museum Cardiff until the 11th of April 2021. For more information and to book free tickets, visit the National Museum Wales website here.
David Llewellyn is a regular contributor at Wales Arts Review.