Director's Note: This is something of a blessed project: in 1980, as a starving, impoverished Biochemistry student at Cardiff University, I answered an ad for a flat-share and met... Josh Richards, studying at The Welsh College of Music and Drama. We lived together for two terms before going our separate ways. He had a fantastic singing voice, he was wild, and he was constantly impersonating my Great Uncle... Richard Burton.
It was a good impersonation, though, in order to achieve Burton's famed resonance, Josh had to stick his head in the huge yellow bubble acquired from a pedestrian crossing. He looked entirely alien, but, my God, you could swear that Burton was in the room. It was quite a party piece and the girls loved him. I never told him that Burton and I were related... closely.
Later that year, I drove Uncle Richie to Switzerland in a red Mini Cooper S. I spent two weeks with him in Paris and a further two weeks at his home in Geneva prior to the Royal Wedding. He was recovering from neck surgery. We were rarely out of each other's company.
When I left Cardiff the following year - with no intention whatsoever of becoming a Biochemist - I ran off to Los Angeles with a nagging suspicion that I too would become an actor someday, but I had some life experiences to accumulate first.
When Uncle Richie died suddenly in August 1984 (during the Los Angeles Olympics) I was deeply shocked. We had become so close; we'd both had an extraordinary relationship with Cis - his older sister & surrogate mother - my Grandmother - a mutual love of beautiful ladies and, of course, Rugby! We chatted endlessly and he extended to me the kind of paternal love that I'd lost when my father died a decade earlier. And once he'd stopped trying to impress his wide-eyed nephew with multitudinous rollicking yarns, he started to really "open up". He was in a very vulnerable state... and he constantly reiterated how horrendous the acting world really was. I now know that much of what he said he did not share with anyone else. I grew to love him and was devastated when death came for him that night in August.
I resolved to become an actor that could follow in his footsteps... not a healthy ambition for a young man with nil experience... but I was determined nonetheless. And follow him I have, though the neon lights of super-stardom did not beckon for me.
After 4 years of professional acting and with 20 plays under my belt and a handful of healthy reviews, I returned to the UK where I fully intended to join the R.S.C. with a view to taking the lead in some huge Shakespearean extravaganza! That part of my ambition also never happened. It was then, while walking dejectedly through Camden Town, I noticed a decapitated poster with only the words 'With Josh Richards as Richard Burton'... Surely not? It was! Still impersonating him! ...I got in touch.
We met for the first time in over a decade again in Cardiff where I confessed my connection to te man himself. Josh was dumfounded! I asked if he'd mind my reading the script. And then... I asked if he'd mind my directing him in it! He agreed and soon, we were working out of my mother's garage in North London! I'd already been invited by Edinburgh's prestigious Assembly Rooms to return my solo version of Under Milk Wood to the Edinburgh Fringe having sold out the Traverse earlier in the year. So I pitched that I should bring Burton too. After all, it would be a terrific publicity angle!
More to the point, the work Josh and I had achieved was spectacular - dare I say it myself. Gone was the Burton that everyone expects; the public Burton, the sneering, angry, booming baritone... the sot with endless Welsh repartee. Out shone the spirit of Burton himself, Burton re-incarnate! Gentle, measured, modest, truthful. It was truly uncanny. Josh's performance was amazing.
What Josh and Mark Jenkins (the writer) allowed me to share with them was on the one hand 'the man behind the myth'; The melancholic, ashamed boozer, 'the boy without a shadow' and on the other, the brilliant unassailable genius that seemed to have an apposite Shakespearean quote for anything any-time. The loving, generous, charming, wonderfully erudite man who never forgot his family or his roots. The grossly misunderstood, horrendously misrepresented superstar that, once sacrificed to te gods of celebrity, would never enjoy true peace and privacy again. His life belonged now to the public... and the public could not get enough of him.
So here he is again, and with a truth and honesty that I can personally attest to. On stage it's as close a representation of a man that once lived that you will likely see. More to the point, it's good drama - because it's true drama. Sometimes it is too painful for me to watch because we have pulled no punches, but I do believe that the man's 'warts 'n all' madeth him. No point in trying to hide them. So, what is left is a true living portrait. One that I and my family am proud to share with you.... Guy Masterson
FROM ADELAIDE FRINGE FESTIVAL 2008
"It's a hot day. Stinking hot. It's also my birthday! Yay. And, as usual for my birthday, I've carefully selected a bunch of shows that I reckon will be winners from beginning to end. Now, this rarely - and by "rarely", I mean "never" - works out well; there was one particularly solemn year where most of my "choice" selections were shit-on-a-stick, with the finale being one of the most embarrassing shows I've been witness to. But every year, I hope for more; every year, I'm convinced I've got it right. If anything, I figured that Playing Burton was the weak link in this year's lineup; how wrong - how very wrong I was.
So - hot day. We're in The Arch at Holden Street - I suspect that's because Richards (who, as the title suggests, is playing Richard Burton) chain-smokes his way through the performance. But The Fear that The Arch will be sweltering is short-lived - it's lovely inside, and the puny air conditioner does a great job until it starts relentlessly dripping onto the floor during a quiet passage. The stage is empty, save for a chair and small table with a bottle of vodka, a glass, and an ashtray. The lights dim, and a recording of the news announcement regarding Burton's death is played.
Richards appears, and he is Burton, coolly listening to his own radio obit. And when he speaks, beginning the tale of his life, he commands respect with a forceful punch. And his tale is wonderfully engaging, and beautifully told - it's all in the contrast of his voice, from that low growl to a room-bloating boom. Time is marked by his demolition of the vodka, which disappears at an exponential rate.
The last ten minutes or so are riveting - speech becomes slurred, movements imprecise. You know the end is near when he falls over, drunk, and only regains his feet after a long pause. Further movements are timid, except where the bottle is concerned.
Now, I'm no Burton aficionado, but I'll be buggered if he wasn't in that theatre. Richards is magic in this production, with a massive presence in this small theatre, and utterly convincing. Far from being the weak link of the day, Playing Burton was a major highlight." Festival Freak -Adelaide - 09/03/08
"Playing Burton is a triumph. Josh Richards was born to play Richard Burton. From the moment Richards walks onto the stage, he provides a master class in performing. As the first syllable drips from his mouth in a deep Welsh baritone he has the audience captivated.
Written by Mark Jenkins and directed by Burton's nephew, Guy Masterson, it is no exaggeration to say that Playing Burton is the definitive biography of Richie Jenkins. At times the play is light, airy and playful, at others it's deep, dark and bitter. Throughout, Richardson is an effortless guide as he wanders, in Burton's own words, from coal mines to Cleopatra and from haberdashery to Hollywood. Burton's sparkling, witty insights constantly transform into alcoholic and smoky mystical revelations, with dark hypnotic meditations on death, life, acting and Elizabeth Taylor.
The script is taut and fascinating and Richards' performance is mesmerising. There is not a better, more incisive living portrait of a man few people truly knew. Burton said "the Welsh are all actors. It's only the bad ones who become professional." On the evidence of this production, Josh Richards is still an amateur. Playing Burton is much more than a life story; it's a tapestry of sagacity, inspiration and admiration." (Stephen Davenport (Adelaide Theatreguide 27/01/08)
"Sitting in his comfy chair, his red cardie buttoned over his otherwise black clothing, Josh Burton's cigarette smoke curls lazily above his head as begins his narration of the life and times of Richard Burton. Without warning, he begins to shout, and I'm immediately reminded of Burton's explosive portrayal of Henry VIII (I WILL marry Anne if it splits the world like an apple and flings the two halves into the void!! - or something like that).
Richards is Welsh, so there's no wincing at poor accents and he carries off the monologue brilliantly, without attempting to channel Burton. Mark Jenkins script is so beautifully written, Guy Masterson's direction is so perfectly economical that Burton is, quite simply, in the room.
The monologue begins with young Richie Jenkins, who is taught drama by the man whose name he would adopt as his own. As he reveals the intensity of the relationship between Phillip Burton and the young Richard, it becomes clear that this not a play which will discuss the tabloid fodder aspect of Burton; rather it is an intimate, almost voyeuristic glimpse into the man behind the headlines, away from the camera, beyond the footlights.
Moving effortlessly from reminisces of his Welsh family life as the 12th son of a drunken coal miner to derision of the English and their hierarchical theatre traditions, quoting from his numerous roles to segue between periods, we see a side of Burton that hurts, that weeps, that regrets, that laments. His rage is in full flight; it would not be Burton otherwise, but the brilliance of this piece is the sensitivity of the writing and of Richards in "playing Burton". Go. See. Listen. (Arna Eyers-White - dB Magazine - Adelaide 25/02/08)
"Guy Masterson brings quality productions to Adelaide each Fringe and he directed this marvellous play about his own great uncle. Josh Richards brilliantly portrays Richard Burton, as he nears the end and reflects on his life and loves, from his impoverished boyhood, through success, alcoholism and to his early death. The words are Burton's own, or those of the great writers he loved so much. Close your eyes for a moment and it could almost be Burton himself on stage. Richards not only sounds like Burton but the movements, the gestures, the whole demeanour is superbly recreated in this masterly performance." (Barry Lenny - Rip It Up Magazine 20/02/08)
FROM EDINBURGH 2007
Josh Richards IS Richard Burton in a brilliant one-man portrayal of a one-off, brilliant man. As witty, illuminating and humorous an hour as one could possibly have asked for: Writing, playing, production - all 100%. My disbelief was quickly suspended and I was happy to feel myself in the virtual presence of this towering Welsh genius.
This was truly the 'Authentic voice of the Valley of the Shadow of Coal' himself giving audience. The voice itself was very evocative of the original too - not a cheap 'Burton voice' to amuse a circle of friends in the pub, but in the hands of the accomplished Josh Richards, the veritable 'voice of Burton'. I believed too in this untameable, determined character who rose from unpromising beginnings to straddle the world of screen and stage. The Burtons were real theatre royalty and the majesty of the man filled the theatre. Why are so many of the greatest luminaries in the Arts either monsters or self-destroyers? Burton certainly was: but on such a grand scale he created a genuine art form of his own - probably better observed from the safe distance of a seat in the Assembly though! Where though are the giants today to match the Burtons? Their vulgarity transcended vulgarity in a way that the drugged-up pop star recidivists, Big Brother nobodies or the shop-alcoholic footballers' wives don't approach by a million iambic pentameters, succeeding only in displaying lamentable and selfish lack of taste. Burton had style - even when he falls backwards on to the floor in a drunken stupor - we forgive the man for he was a genius. This was a solo performance, and also a piece of writing of quality. (Fringereview.com 20/08/07)
Josh Richards has returned to the Fringe in Mark Jenkins' Playing Burton directed by Guy Masterson. These three young warriors of the mid 1990's have become part of British Theatre's old guard. Each has developed their own niche but this coming together is a perfect balance. Originally brought to the Fringe in 1994, Playing Burton is meant to dig under the "Liz and Dick" muck and provide some insight into and history of the man originally named Richard Jenkins. Mark Jenkins' play is very much in the here and now of Burton looking back on his life as a Welsh coal miner's son rocketed into the limelight, more for his relationship with Elizabeth Taylor than his much respected acting career. Before Warhol limited fame to fifteen minutes, Burton of "Liz and Dick" fame often provided the tabloids as well as respected newspapers with limitless fodder. Burton wore the heavy mantle of fame well.
With Josh Richards' homage, we see little of the celebrity that was Burton. Richards' Burton begins with his Welsh childhood and transformation. It's hard to let go of the miner's tradition but under the paternalist wing of acting coach Philip Burton, Richard Jenkins' future as a miner is sealed off and his Hollywood star quickly meteors. It's almost painful to watch.
Never aiming for the sombre or self-pitying, Richards' proves his love and respect of his character. And for his audience. His performance is so subtle as to woo the audience in. Dramatic effects are light; the set is dressed only with the requisite bottle, glass and cigarettes as props.
Playing Burton is an actor's dream and not to be missed, even by those who never knew the personae that was Richard Burton. It'll knock your "red" socks off. (Catherine Lamm - British Theatre Guide 18/08/07)
Perhaps this is strange to say but where as I admire and enjoy watching RichardBurton perform in film, I almost idolise Guy Masterson. I admit to being a little surprised to discover the close blood relationship between these two very talented men.
I went to see Josh Richards performing as Burton directed by Guy Masterson, with slightly different expectations. I know that everything Guy is involved in is top quality but to have had intimate personal knowledge of the subject took this show to a higher level still.
I sat back and enjoyed this show, not just as a performance, but a glimpse into the personal life of one of the worlds most famous actors. There were times when Josh sounded exactly as I imagined Burton would and when he is describing Elizabeth Taylor for the first time you are in no doubt who she is although her name is not mentioned at the time.
Part of the magic in any solo show is in the writing without a good script even the best actor in the world struggles to produce a creditable performance. Mark Jenkins himself also welsh certainly seems to have magic in his writing. He has brought out many different facets of the man, the actor and the legend.
I can not imagine how different the show would be without Guy's input. I did not look at the programme before seeing the show and was therefore not aware of all the facts and relationships.
This is a well written, skillfully directed and beautifully performed glimpse into the life of one of the most idolised welsh actors ever. Despite being at the back of the room I felt I was the only one present and couldn't believe it was over when the lights went on. (One4Review.com 18/08/07)
"a profound, highly personal and beautiful insight"
I left the theatre desperate to tell all of my friends about this play. Josh Richards' performance grips you from the beginning, tracing the story of Richard Jenkins, son of a drunken Welsh miner, who became Richard Burton, one of the biggest stars of his time. This compelling production seeks to discover the real man behind the 'Burton' persona, revealing his frailty, his desperation and his genius. Mark Jenkins' script is lyrical, with Richards savouring every line - some Shakespeare, some Marlowe, some Burton's own; his anecdotes delivered with his wonderful dry wit even as he succumbs to alcoholism and personal tragedy. It makes for a profound, highly personal and beautiful insight into an actor destroyed by his own performance. (Three Weeks 08/08/07)
In the age of Heat and Popbitch, an endearing portrayal of Richard Burton reminds us it was always so. We live in the age of celebrity culture and the Heat generation, but Playing Burton reviews the rise, scandals and demise of one of Hollywood's finest for a more mature audience. Still, the show is not only aimed solely at those who remember when the price of a Mars bar was a mere sixpence. Richard Burton's life has all the makings of a compelling story. From miner to movie star, the play covers his poor beginnings, his journey to becoming Hollywood's highest paid actor, to his descent into alcoholism and marriage to Elizabeth Taylor. The one man show is sustained by writer Mark Jenkins' rich script, filled with humour and retrospective irony. The frequent intertwining of quotes from Shakespeare and Orwell into the narrative reflects Burton's love for the English literature and acclaimed stage career. Jenkins also remains true to Burton's roots emphasising his patriotism through outbursts of the Welsh language. Actor Josh Richards portrayal of Burton is fantastic, captivating his audience and elevating the play above what could become a dreary monologue. He initially creates an endearing and likable Richard Burton but then transforms him into an ill, bitter alcoholic adding an increasingly sombre tone to the conclusion of this first class piece of theatre. (Fest Magazine 15/08/07)
"With a mountain shattering presence Josh Richards becomes Richard Burton in an exceptionally powerful and darkly haunting performance... It's faultless, riveting, brilliantly charismatic and peerlessly acted."(The Scotsman)
"So bloody brilliant it's right off the scale..! It's quite spectacular... It's multidimensional. It's multifaceted. It's one not to miss at all!" (BBC Radio Scotland)
"A haunting, mesmerising, deliriously literate account. An unforgettable distillation of the essence of Burton's uniqueness. A shattering portrayal!" (Jack Tinker - Daily Mail)
"Deliciously witty and entertaining... This is the definitive portrayal..."(Edinburgh Evening News)
"Even those to whom Burton meant nothing will be drawn into this extraordinary portrayal of an extraordinary man's extraordinary life." (The List)