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Liz and self-loathing

The Richard Burton Diaries - review.

The Richard Burton Diaries
Edited by Chris Williams
Yale University Press, 704pp, £25

The most captivating book of the year, Richard Burton’s diaries start in 1939, when he was 14 and living in the small town of Pontrhydyfen, with the mention of learning Richard II, a party, the cinema, football, acing a game of darts and a death. It continues precisely in this vein for the next 44 years, except with more women and wine. By 1940, his English teacher had adopted him and taken him out into the valleys in high winds to make him yell Shakespeare until his throat bled. By 1956, he was in Hollywood, a physical aristocrat with mooncratered skin and a thigh-flashing skirt as Alexander the Great. By 1963, he had met Elizabeth Taylor on the set of Cleopatra and the entries – already juicy – lounge in an exultant bliss. Strictly when he’s not working, that is.

Burton is especially relentless on “the loathed subject of acting”. He would say to pretty much anyone that he felt the profession was frivolous, embarrassing: “What a sloppy job to have.” This combination of self-pity and his overreverent attitude to his mining provenance (real men do not act) is representative of how hysterically macho Burton was. In these 700- odd pages – and amid the millions of pounds spent on clobber and jewels for Taylor – he mentions clothes for himself just twice. He moans once about his thinning hair and refers to his acne-gouged skin four times but more with curiosity than loathing.

His true preoccupations are set: Taylor, money, booze and reading. He shows so little interest in the process of movie-making that his career appears a mere inconvenience and he especially despises being told what to do by directors, who, as a breed, he felt were stiffs. Anyone who really respected directors over actors must be a reader of Sight and Sound – another great insult. He makes perversely appalling choices with films; complete Euro-shit, dubbed to hell and often filmed in countries run by tinpot dictators who didn’t know the meaning of an en suite bathroom or a good steak. And all the while, he stockpiles his gold.

Burton writes of only a few people outside his family with any real affection (he loved Rex Harrison when few did) and Brando certainly gets it in the neck: “That self-indulgent, obese fart.” Yet he notes Brando’s “lethargic dyna - mism”, which is a great description and typical of Burton’s eye. You suspect he saw something of himself in Brando, who also publicly hated acting and was the first to make the hating of it a modish thing.

For Burton, however, it was even more complicated: the amount of adoration he received found its perfect rebound in the amount of contempt he had for the adoration. As he got more and more famous, he got more and more contemptuous. And the more contemptuous he looked, the more famous he became, until he spent 20 years encased in a self-hating armour looking just like a guy who really was going to drink himself to death out of disdain and self-hatred. “What the hell is it?” Burton notes with horror as people literally shivered when he entered a room. “Who did it to me?”

Unlike Brando, Burton had a euphoric partner in crime. Although the book documents two divorces from Taylor, theirs was for stretches a delirious relationship (“I love her to the point of pain”). Unable to leave the house without causing a riot, they would stay in and do crossword puzzles and maul each other for weeks on end, sallying out now and again to a restaurant for a post-coital binge. “So now to wake my blissly beautiful animal girl,” he writes, one Sunday morning. “Don’t spoil it nobody, boys, fellers.” All his life, Burton was a voracious reader and the adoring Elizabeth encouraged it. A learned man after years of nightclub singers and spivs! Poetry, histories, biographies, instruction manuals, dictionaries, classics and tripe.

Burton reads everywhere, fast, devouring Dombey and Son in one helicopter journey. His recall is incredible and his many passing quotes and references are always accurate. My father went to see Burton give a reading with W H Auden once and says that while Auden shuffled notes, Burton stood up and reeled everything off wholesale – for an hour. Whole collectionsof Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins, unfurling as though he were using an autocue.

Although there’s very little he, rather Derren Brown-ishly, doesn’t notice (for instance, tiny modulations in the gestures of strangers indicating perceived threat), what is more stunning is what he’s not saying.

Taylor would often pick up the diary to read it so, on some level, Burton was always writing it to her. One can imagine the fierce kiss he got for this: “I didn’t care if her legs, bum and bosoms fell off and her teeth turned yellow. And she went bald. I love that woman so much.” And although he was faithful to her for many years – this, a man who managed to screw around on the night of his marriage to his first wife, Sybil – his well-documented affair with the actress Geneviève Bujold, for example, on the set of Anne of the Thousand Days in 1969, is not mentioned once. Instead, he writes boredly of the woman (“She has reinvented biliousness”). The cover is seamless. Man, he’s good. For Elizabeth, this must have been excruciating. If you watch interviews of the pair at that time, she is literally wringing her hands.

No woman escapes Burton’s terminator once-over. He is particularly appalled by Iris Murdoch’s author photograph on the cover of her novel The Red and the Green (he writes of “unattractive lady writers whose photos one sees on the back of Penguins”).

Yet, by the end, it’s not books or Taylor or other women or wives or work or money that preoccupies Burton the most; it’s booze. “The Martini glass fogged with condensation, straight up and then straight down and the warm flood, the painkiller hitting the stomach and then the brain and an hour of sweetly melancholy euphoria.” How sexy he makes it sound. And this is key. In Burton’s mind, as much as in the minds of his fans, he was the embodiment of a mystical view of an escape to an incandescent “Abroad”. A place far, far away from England (and lifetimes from Pontrhydyfen) to be arrived at via private yacht. A land of tacos and tequila and fishing for dorado and baby sharks, salt-cleaned and sunslimmed, down, down in an intense warmth of fame and passion and endless wealth and variety, where you can drink all day and never suffer from it. A glamorous alcoholism with no cheque ever presented. It’s a very hard fantasy to shake.

To read of Burton suffering the joint aches and blackouts and agonising liver-munching decay of your average crummy wino holds a special kind of horror. You are glad when the diary ends abruptly in April 1983, with Burton long bored of keeping it, after a day insulting Taylor in Welsh (which she understood) for being pissed and slagging off a director for being a Noël Coward-loving druggie. That’s my boy. A year later, he died of a brain haemorrhage and didn’t feel a thing.

Antonia Quirke’s novel “Madame Depardieu and the Beautiful Strangers” is published by Harper Perennial (£7.99)

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis