Richard Burton was a rare actor but always claimed that it was just a job and that he’d be happiest reading a good book. And yet he clearly knew his art.
This battle and transformation from the temporal to the spiritual in the man Thomas Becket is as fascinating to the actor as it is to the writer and as difficult to realise. It is comparatively easy to be a red, roaring man. But it is not so easy to change into a little pale man, alone, burned by the fury of his own awful and terrible belief, moving uncertainly towards unattainable and impossible saintliness…. He must be taciturn, spare, meager and miserly in his dispensation of beautiful words. This is the writer’s and the actor’s problem with a part like Becket – to keep him as silent as possible and still interesting.
If Thomas Becket was a character that stretched him intellectually, Hamlet, it seems, was best played after a few drinks.
One of them said she had seen me as Hamlet in New York, and actually asked me how could I possibly remember the lines. I told her that I never did actually get them straight and that some of my improvisations on speeches which I hated and therefore could never recall would have been approved by the lousy actor-writer himself. I told her that once I spoke “To be or not to be” in German to an American audience, but she obviously didn’t believe me. I told her there were certain aspects of Hamlet, I mean the man, so revolting that one could only do them when drunk. The frantic self-pity of “How all occasions do inform against me, and spur my dull revenge” You have to be sloshed to get around that. At least I have to be. I think I must have shocked her.