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Shrew stories of the Sixties.

HETHER Richard Burton would have approved is hard to say.

WA traditionalist and feted Shakespearean actor of the brilliant but orthodox variety, what would the hellraiser with the mellifluous voice have made of The Taming of the Shrew - 1960s-style? But that's what the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama (RWCMD) is offering up to celebrate what would have been the late Welsh actor's 90th birthday.

In next week's tribute to Burton - who played The Taming of the Shrew's Petruccio alongside Elizabeth Taylor as headstrong Katherina in an emotion-packed 1967 movie - RWCMD director Iqbal Khan (Othello, RSC) transports the headstrong heroine of Shakespeare's play to a Beatles, Hendrix and Warhol-dominated '60s.

And reflecting Katherina's independence, the play is set against the rise of radical feminism.

Burton, born into a family of 12 crowded into a house in Pontrhydyfen high above the steel town of Port Talbot on November 10, 1925, became so famous he could pick his movies and name his price.

But when director Franco Zeffirelli literally came calling in 1965 with an offer of directing him and Taylor in The Taming of the Shrew, Burton was like putty in his Italian hands.

Zeffirelli tracked the explosive pair to a hotel room in Dublin where, according to the director's memoirs, Taylor had brought back a galago (bushbaby) from Africa and was chasing it around the room instead of talking about The Taming of the Shrew.

Zeffirelli recalls Burton slamming down his whisky and shouting: "'Will you please stop this bloody nonsense with that horrendous little monster and come and talk to this man.

"He's a superb Shakespearean director and you might be lucky enough to work with him some day. Can't you be more pleasant to him?" In 1967, after filming in Rome, the movie (which also starred fellow Welshman Victor Spinetti) was released to critical acclaim and box-office success.

The film had its premiere in London at the Odeon as a Royal Command Performance in February 1967, with Princess Margaret in the audience.

Burton said of the movie: "We made The Taming of the Shrew because I wanted to act a rough role as far away as possible from those Rex Harrison parts with nice suits and freshly laundered shirts, and my wife because she wanted to talk English for a change.

"In Shrew she shows definite Shakespearean feeling, the only difficulties being some of the Bard's words that are alien to her. For instance, 'how durst thou' is not common talk in California."

The 1967 Burton-Taylor movie had something of a misogynistic marketing theme. Its tagline was: "A motion picture for every man who ever gave the back of his hand to his beloved... and for every woman who deserved it. Which takes in a lot of people!" RWCMD director Iqbal Kahn said: "The Taming of the Shrew is, to say the least, a problematic play for modern sensibilities.

"I want to confront these difficulties head-on with this company. The play's 'induction' places the whole 'taming' story as a play-within-a-play.

"What is authentic and for whom is this 'instructive' comedy meant - a drunken and wayward Tinker? Is it a man's cruel wish-fulfilment...? "Is it a satire on that overblown terror of the emancipated, free spirit of woman...? "We've located the play at the end of the '60s, at a time of revolt and upheaval across generations and genders.

"It is also a time of 'happenings', of heroic collectives, of artists challenging what is authentic and what is mass-produced, how 'truth' is packaged...

"Experiment is at the heart of our project and we are at the beginnings of it at present.

"The company of actors I'm working with is exceptional and fearlessly curious."

Luke MacGregor, a third-year BA Acting student at the RWCMD who is taking on the role played by Burton, said: "It's been a treat to tackle one of Shakespeare's most ambiguous plays.

"Petruccio is a character who could easily just be seen as a bit of a narcissist and chauvinistic pig.

"But actually I think he is as complex as many of Shakespeare's leading men and Iqbal and I have tried to bring out a vulnerability in the character.

"Anyone expecting a simple knockabout comedy will be in for a bit of a shock, because, as always with Shakespeare, it's never that simple."

All over the world this month, articles, plays and screenings of Burton movies have been held to mark the 90th anniversary of his birth And in Wales a unique portrait of the actor, who died in Switzerland in 1984 aged 54, has been made using 500-million-yearold slate from Conwy county.

Mosaic artist Ed Chapman used stone from the disused Rhiwbach Quarry, in Conwy, to make the piece.

The mosaic is expected to find a permanent home at Swansea University, where the actor's memoirs are kept.

The Taming of the Shrew can be seen at the RWCMD's Richard Burton Theatre from December 2-12.


Ed Chapman's mosaic portrait of Richard Burton and, below, Burton with Elizabeth Taylor
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Nov 28, 2015
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