Gone for a Burton

Guy Masterson knows that he could never emulate uncle Richard, at least not without a bucket on his head. But with nothing more than a bale of hay he can evoke the vibrancy of 'Animal Farm' on stage. By James Rampton
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Like Liam Botham, the actor Guy Masterson is fed up with questions about his more-famous relative. Masterson's uncle was Richard Burton. "I once thought I wanted to be the next Richard Burton," he sighs. "I was stuffed with ridiculous dreams of being a star. I even had my Oscar speech memorised - 'This is for my uncle: nominated seven times, but never won, you bastards.'"

After several years of Hollywood bit-parts in Dallas, The Golden Girls and Sly Stallone's aptly-named arm-wrestling epic, Over the Top, however, Masterson realised that the Oscar speech and the comparisons with his uncle would have to be put on hold. "I thought that all I needed was to do a good impersonation of Richard and doors would start to open," Masterson recalls. "But no one was interested in the fact that he was my uncle. They just thought, 'There's someone on a bandwagon'."

A balding, bulging, bespectacled thirtysomething, he cannot replicate his relative's overwhelming sexual magnetism, and he couldn't possibly hope to match Burton's marvellously mellifluous voice. Emphasising the point self-mockingly, Masterson sticks his head in a fire-bucket in order to reproduce the richness of his uncle's tones. "I could obviously never be the next Richard Burton," he laughs, "because I couldn't walk around with a red pail on my head."

Masterson, who once spent six weeks in 1981 driving his uncle to Gstaad, still has a spiritual affinity with Burton. "I was like the son he never had, and he was like my lost father." Masterson underlined that by directing Playing Burton, an acclaimed play about his uncle, at the Edinburgh Festival two years ago. "It could just as easily have been about Paul Gascoigne," Masterson observes. "It was about a man destroyed because he became a public property. Richard couldn't live up to everybody's expectations. He didn't have the emotional capacity to deal with the pressure. He was the twelfth of 13 children from a very working-class family. He was unable to reconcile where he came from with who he was expected to be."

So much for nepotism. Masterson is very much his own man now: the first Guy Masterson rather than the next Richard Burton. "The whole thing about name-dropping has got be let go," he says. "People only name-drop when they're insecure and need to be elevated to a status they don't have." Masterson has no need for that any more: he's rapidly creating a name for himself with his one-man versions of George Orwell's Animal Farm and Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas. The two shows have been attracting rave reviews on tour from Derby to Delhi, and finally arrive in London this week.

And as Guy Masterson gives a command performance of selected scenes to a hand-picked audience of one in the bare rehearsal room upstairs at the Arts Theatre in central London, it's easy to see why. Using a cacophony of animal sounds that the late Percy Edwards would have been proud of, and without a soap-box in sight, Masterson evokes an entire jostling, jeering election campaign in an excerpt from Animal Farm. Snowball and Napoleon's hustings speeches about the windmill and the three-day week are constantly interrupted by hecklers chanting "four legs good, two legs bad" like so many SWP placemen at a John Major rally. The hustle and bustle of a huge crowd is brought to life by a cast of one.

The echoes of the real-life election campaign are unmistakable. Tony Boncza, the director of both shows, admits that the London debut of Animal Farm is fortuitously timed. "People are bound to accuse us of being opportunistic," he admits. "But we're not jumping on the General Election bandwagon. We've been doing this show for two years now. And anyway, Orwell wrote the piece as a universal warning about the betrayal of trust. It's a timeless message that we ignore at our peril."

Meanwhile, for my command performance, Masterson moves swiftly on to a scene from Under Milk Wood: before my very eyes, Dai Bread, scurrying, grooming, metamorphoses into Mrs Dai Bread One, waddling, tittle-tattling, who in turn gives way to Mrs Dai Bread Two, flirting, preening. A single gesture - the way Mrs Dai Bread Two primps her hair, for example - conjures up an entire emotional hinterland and differentiates one character from the 68 others on display. Masterson almost achieves the impossible: ousting from your mind his uncle's definitive reading of the play.

"I tell the audience who the characters are," he explains, "and from that moment on that's who they have got to be." As he speaks, he picks up a handy paperback. "If I said this book was Squealer - 'Hello, comrades, how are you?' - then soon you'd start to believe it."

Yet Masterson manages all this stage magic with the barest minimum of props. "Simplicity is a lost art," he observes. "Actors are so wrapped up in doing rather than being. I offer a pared-down version of everything. For Under Milk Wood I use one chair and for Animal Farm a bale of hay, but a whole village and a whole farm are there because it works in the imagination. It's whatever the audience make of it."

"Guy is a very good mime artist," adds his director. "He can colour and shade without having to get out a teapot. He doesn't lay it on with a trowel. The audience can create their own sensaround. They do a lot of the work."

Such spare, pared-down, one-person shows are all the rage at the moment: Simon Callow, Brian Cox, Maureen Lipman - all have lately given them a whirl in the West End. They are obviously an effective and economical way of cutting out several middle men, but go-it-alone shows can all too easily offer an excuse to parade an ego the size of Wales.

Masterson pleads not guilty to the charge of ego-tripping. "A lot of actors just want to show off their virtuosity," he concedes, "but the need to be recognised goes against a good performance. You've got to keep self-indulgence out. The audience doesn't want to see someone desperate to be reassured: they want full communication, not someone with 'love me' or 'hire me' written on their forehead. I try never to get in the way of the words - otherwise the reason for doing the play in the first place loses all meaning."

Boncza goes even further, arguing that one-person shows can actually be more thought-provoking than all-singing, all-dancing extravaganzas. They certainly obviate the need for, say, Miss Saigon-style, helicopter- landing grandiosity. "If people are involved in the story," he says, "they can have helicopters in their minds and hear the chopping of the blades. With one person on stage, you're not distracted and can listen to the poetry."

Masterson finds doing the two shows an exhausting experience: he claims he once squeezed two litres of sweat out of his costume after a performance in India. But he believes that both plays gain from being done solo. "In the past, with these shows, we've been presented with images we're meant to swallow," he contends. "I never try to impose on an audience's imagination - just stimulate or augment it. You know in a film when someone's just staring and not doing anything? The audience fills in the gaps and thinks it's a brilliant performance. Look at Peter Sellers in Being There."

He may be the one hogging the spotlight, but oddly, he insists, it isn't him that the audience is watching. "They're watching a free-flowing image. It happens to be me performing, but the words work in the audience's minds individually. Everyone comes away with their own interpretation."

Masterson anchors his own particular brand of very physical performance within a long theatrical tradition. "However clever, powerful and original it may all appear, at the end of the day it's what was being done in the 10th century. Remember Kevin Costner imitating a buffalo in Dances With Wolves? It's the same thing. You see it in American Indian dancing and in Kathakali theatre in India. Every finger-movement has been codified over generations simply to pass on stories. It's a dying art because nowadays we write everything down."

But it won't die out completely if Masterson and Boncza have anything to do with it. "Adults are grown-up children," Boncza concludes. "Getting away from special effects and sophistication, people love being told stories. There's a culture of not being involved in the theatre. But with these shows, adults behave like children. They sit on the edge of their seats as if their grandmother were telling them a story."

Or even their uncle, perhapsn

'Animal Farm' on Tue, Thu, Sat (& Wed matinees); 'Under Milk Wood' on Mon, Wed, Fri (& Sat matinees), at the Arts Theatre, London WC1 (0171- 836 3334) to 17 May