Richard Burton’s well trodden boards

This article was originally published in Cherwell on 4 November 2016.

The Burton Taylor studio is an integral part of Oxford drama. A place where budding Oxford actors make their mark and start their careers. Yet while we regularly pass it, enjoy art in it and perhaps even perform in it, we rarely realise why it stands there.

While Elizabeth Taylor has no explicit links to the university, Richard Burton most certainly does. Both his father and elder brother saw education as Burton’s route out of his turbulent childhood, so Oxford became the end goal for him, the first member of his family to ever go to secondary school. As part of a six-month RAF scholarship scheme that combined his studies in aviation with work in English and Italian, he entered Exeter College after excelling at his exams.

Burton had already shown himself to have a knack for performance as a child, he truly discovered his talent on the stage at Exeter.

In 1944, before an audience packed full of West End heavyweights, he played a complex, sexually tortured Angelo in Measure for Measure. By all accounts, Burton commanded the stage. His acting peer and friend Robert Hardy described it, “There were moments when he totally commanded the audience by this stillness. And the voice which would sing like a violin and with a bass that could shake the floor.” He received a standing ovation.

Whispers abounded among the stars present about employing Burton as a professional actor should he seek it as a career after finishing his work with the RAF. Happily for the history of stage and screen, he did.

Two decades later, he kept a promise to his tutor: one day he would return a star. He and Taylor, who was at that time the highest paid actor in the world, starred in an OUDS production of Doctor Faustus, directed by his former tutor Coghill, at the Oxford Playhouse.

Then, in 1966, Burton directed money toward the Burton rooms, a space where actors could read and rehearse in (relative) comfort. Soon, these rooms began to be used more and more for both rehearsing and full blown productions, transforming them in to the Burton Taylor studio: the launch pad it is today. The name was given in honour of the working class Welsh lad who wrote his name into the annals of the history of the stage and whose theatrical presence stunned Oxford into silence.

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