REVIEW by Daniel Leeman

NWR Issue r6

The Actors’ Crucible: Port Talbot and the Making of Burton, Hopkins, Sheen and All the Others

by Angela V John

What immediately hit me about The Actors’ Crucible was the love expressed by its author for her topic: ‘This subject crept up on me and took me over.’ The way she makes the case for the deprived town of Port Talbot, most recently hit by steel plant closures, as being ‘a rich culture and community that has, over time, encouraged creativity and aspirations’ proves Angela V John’s strong connection, not only to the area itself, but also to those who have helped it survive the test of time. These people might not necessarily be famous, nor need they even be considered ‘actors’ in any serious sense of the word. The ones who stand out among those examined are not international stars like Anthony Hopkins, but are instead figures such as Siân Owen, who gained confidence after speaking verse in chapel and went on to act in Welsh, or guides such as Cecilia James, who raised her brother Richard until his care was transferred and he took up the surname of Burton. It was this kind of people who helped to shape Port Talbot into the fertile ground for talent that it is, and many like them will continue do so, even as one by one the stars leave for Hollywood.

There are times when John’s feelings for the town seem to possess her, prompting her to describe every gritty detail. Because of this, the work reads almost like a travel narrative, across history as well as geography. John herself hails from the town, though she resided in England throughout much of her higher education and has since returned to Wales, having made a name for herself as an academic historian. No doubt it was this professional background that enabled her to create such as accessible and authentic work. It was by chance that she met Michael Sheen at a conference, prompting her to cease work on her other projects and begin The Actors’ Crucible.

One of the most entertaining and informative aspects is the frequent focus placed upon education. From Burton’s time under the tutelage of his teacher-come-guardian to the futile attempts of the melancholy Hopkins to gain an education while at boarding school, it seems likely that anyone who reads this will come away from it with enough knowledge to write an A-level essay on the history of education in Wales, if not an entire dissertation. Not only does John pay attention to the boyhood memories of big names like Michael Sheen, who as a teenager once upstaged two professional actors while playing the role of a sheep in Godspell, but she also presents us with harsh realities, like the experiences of TV matinée actor Ronald Lewis as an evacuee during World War Two.

If there is one complaint I must make, it is that John should have been more careful while addressing the apparent rumours of sexual motivation behind Philip Burton’s guardianship of young Richard. John’s coy and suggestive language is unsuited to such a sensitive subject, and without any evidence to either dismiss or confirm the matter, I am unable to look upon John’s treatment of the subject as little more than gossip.

Any overtures from Burton towards Richard could well have prompted aggression from him, put an end to the whole ‘experiment’ and seen the schoolmaster charged with breaking a law that was not reformed until 1967 (and Richard was still a minor). So Burton’s championing of the undeniably attractive and dedicated student would have been conducted in a manner that was without reproach. Any one-sided passion would have been sublimated into turning raw and eager talent into an actor for the future.

There are far too many real stories contained within this book for me to accurately convey just how much I learned. Having come to it as a relative ignoramus in matters of acting and theatre, particularly those related to the Welsh scene, I can write with confidence that it succeeds where so many other works of its type have failed. That is, it managed to educate me without overwhelming, and was thoroughly entertaining into the bargain. Furthermore, the level and originality of John’s research and analysis suggest that neither would it bore those already acquainted with its subject.

Daniel Leeman was, until recently, Publishing Project Support Officer at Aberystwyth University’s Department of English and Creative Writing.

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