An evening of bugger all

picture of Owen Teale as the narrator, First Voice, with Llareggub in the background

Owen Teale as the narrator, First Voice, with Llareggub in the background

Under Milk Wood

Malvern Theatres

****

Under Milk Wood is Dylan Thomas’s final creation, over six years in the making, and first broadcast on radio in January 1954, two months after Thomas’s early but unsurprising death at the age of thirty nine.

It was soon adapted for the stage, showing at the Edinburgh International Festival just two and a half years later.

Terry Hands’ current production not only marks the sixtieth anniversary of that radio premiere, but also the centenary of Thomas’s birth in Swansea. Owen Teale (Game of Thrones) leads a very strong cast of Welsh actors which includes Kai Owen (Torchwood) and Steven Meo (The Fabulous Baker Boys).

As narrator or First Voice, Teale introduces us to the colourful characters of Llareggub, the small Welsh seaside town where we are shown a full twenty four hour cycle in the lives of the town’s inhabitants, extraordinary in their ordinariness.

We meet lovers and fishermen, mothers and school children, as Thomas uncovers the hopes, fears and dark dreams of almost seventy of the townsfolk, all cleverly played by a cast of only eleven.

We see mere snippets of these lives and how they intertwine, so that it is more the town as a living entity which we get to know, rather than those who dwell there, although we do gain insight into the inner worlds of some of the more prominent characters, such as blind Captain Cat, the exotic Mrs Dai Bread Two, and Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard and her two dead but very present husbands.

Indeed, one of Thomas’s concerns regarding Under Milk Wood, which he intended to be the Welsh equivalent of Joyce’s Ulysses, was its lack of plot. Richard Burton, who famously narrated Under Milk Wood for several separate productions, is quite correct in his assertion that, ‘The entire thing is about religion, the idea of death and sex’, and nobody has ever really worked out whether the work is a play, a poem, something different or something in between.

The language used is truly beautiful, and Thomas’s use of poetic devices such as alliteration and assonance make listening, at times, a joy. He also uses very different speech patterns to distinguish different characters, most noticeably in the rhythm and rhyme of Reverend Eli Jenkins (Simon Nehan), or the song of poor Polly Garter (Hedydd Dylan) lamenting her lost love.

And so we are shown a portrait in words of Llareggub, a town that could be anywhere or nowhere, filled with people who don’t exist but could be any of us, and where everything and nothing happens every day. Read the name of this fictional town backwards and Thomas tells us precisely what of import goes on there.

Although this production was gorgeously lit and perfectly set, with the whole town recreated in miniature behind the cast, for me some of Thomas’s wonderful lines went by too quickly to savour. That is in no way a criticism of the actors, I just felt that some phrases deserved and needed to be pored over and reread, which obviously would sound pretty silly in a live performance.

The imagery conjured up by descriptions of the old sea captain being nibbled down to his wishbone, or vegetables making love above the tenors needs time to sink in, and this can never be done satisfactorily in such a production. On the plus side, I am certain there will be many amongst the audience who go back to their Thomas in search of more linguistic gems.

There is much comedy throughout Under Milk Wood, despite the seemingly ever-present shadow of death, and at one point, after a particularly noisy outhouse scene, Owen Teale, who had thus far held the proceedings together superbly, corpsed utterly, bringing a sniggering pause over the whole production.

Teale handled this well and by his gestures (he was for a while totally incapable of speech) managed to include the audience in his hilarity, turning what could have been incredibly awkward into a finely shared moment of live performance. After what must, to Teale, have seemed an age, he managed to continue, and put in a faultless performance for the rest of the evening.

At around two hours, the piece seemed rather long and slow at times, and perhaps Thomas was right to hanker after some kind of plot. This is a great piece of writing, however, and Terry Hands has done a good job of bringing it back to the stage. A must see for Thomas connoisseurs but not for those of a sleepy nature perhaps, as the lilting lines and lack of linear narrative make for an atmosphere described by my companion as ‘soporific’. But then perhaps Thomas would find it fitting if just a few audience members, like the dreamers in the cobbled streets of Llareggub, were gently ‘rocked to sleep by the sea . . .’ To 17-5-14

Amy Rainbow

13-05-15 

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