MENTION Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to some people and they will think of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the movie version bickering as husband and wife George and Martha in a way which seemed to mirror their tempestuous private life.
Jasper Britton, the actor playing George in Edward Albee’s play at the Crucible, can claim to have witnessed their impassioned relationship on and off screen.
As a young boy the son of actor Tony Britton shared a family holiday with the then Hollywood superstars.
“It was in an Italian fishing village on the Amalfi coast which my parents regularly spent the summer and one year the Burtons came to stay,” he recalls.
“One day Elizabeth Taylor came down and said to my mother, ‘We are going shopping,’ even though it was only a small fishing village. But off they went with this uniformed waiter in tow carrying a silver tray with vodka and tonic and ice wherever they went. They got hopelessly drunk and when they returned I was with my father and Richard Burton who asked them what they had bought.
“All they had found were those striped fisherman’s smocks and when they showed them Burton flew into a fearful rage about it being his money they were spending.
“They carried on and you could hear them shouting at each other in their room and I asked my dad why they were always arguing. He replied: ‘Because they love each other very much’.”
The perfect insight into the relationship between George and Martha, one would have thought, but Britton replies: “I hadn’t really thought of it until now.”
It’s true that the anecdote was prompted by an entirely different question about the pros and cons of having a famous father.
Certainly growing up as the son of an actor had a direct influence on his chosen career.
There was a eureka moment for him one day at school when, bored in a history lesson, he turned over the paper on which he was doodling to discover it was one of his father’s scripts.
“He used to give old scripts to use as scrap paper. This one was from No No Nanette, I remember, and I started reading the lyrics of a song. It was just the way it was set out with all the capital letters that leapt from the page something just clicked with me.”
He didn’t act on it straight away, though. “I absolutely kept it under my hat but I eventually started working in the theatre as stage manager and sound designer and worked my way to where I wanted to be.”
Which was indeed being an actor and he eventually talked his way into being given an audition at the Old Vic in 1989 for a part in King Lear and never looked back, going on to work at the National, the RSC and the Globe. His previous appearance in Sheffield was touring to the Lyceum in St Joan with Imogen Stubbs and most recently he was in his old chum, the late Simon Gray’s The Last Cigarette.
As for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he does admit to taking a look at the movie even though it is different from the play. “I fancied a bit of fun and I thought Burton was brilliant,” he said though he will not be attempting to emulate his George. “Nobody seems to have noticed he doesn’t do an American accent. Even so, I’ve found it difficult to say Martha without sounding just like him.”
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is at the Crucible until April 7.