To begin at the beginning. Michael Sheen is quietly electrifying, like the night itself. Tom Jones twinkles and twitches amiably, like some sea-faring, rabbit-nosed cat king. Jonathan Pryce poisons the missus (and vice-versa,) only she lacks the manual. And Charlotte Church’s sheets are surely as virtuous and polar a white as it says, there, there in those voiced words; in the silken, cobblestone rap of it.
Sorry. Fa-ar too tempting to slip into sub-Llareggubian; the language of herons and otters and shouting dogs and oh, people – the living and the dead. In the lush, daft, dusky, gloriously humdrum thrall of that beautiful, rippling world, who wouldn’t? When the warmest and bestest of Welsh Wales are up there, winking at us – who wouldn’t be seduced?
I am. Whilst knowing enough of this dumpy oddball Thomas to intellectually challenge that ludicrous pomp, that selfishness, that (arguably?) misogynist micro-creed of his. Whilst being the bloke who (o-kaay, metaphorically) pours a pint over him, for his braying, his idleness, his middle-classness.
Despite the despites I confess that for me Dylan still breaks right out and runs off giggling, wheezing, to hide in some upturned boat. Incorrigible bastard that he is, he’s probably still there, swigging something gross but writing something else that’s utterly life-affirming; for which we must forgive him. Something beautiful, fearless and inviolably good because – whatever the inadequacies of the man – it’s flooded with supreme and undeniable warmth.
This BBC Wales/National Theatre Wales version of Under Milk Wood is seductively good not because it is flawless or universally beautifully performed (though in its predominantly purple passages it does have that quality) but because it simply gets Thomas. And Laugharne and all that defying of the banal – and the humour of his language and the web-footed lives of the protagonists. It gets all of that beautifully.
Here though, a necessary note. I say protagonists rather than characters aware of the difficulty some have with the writer’s neglect for building or ‘developing’ ‘character’. But I’m with Thomas, refreshed, in fact by his inspired cartoons in this and nearly every instance.
Relax. I don’t make an argument for suspension of normal critical faculties so much as a plea to listen and to allow the poetry of the thing (remember that?) to do its work. The contemporary, over-thunk, painfully work-shopped calibration of meaningful events-in-the-life-of thing is just one end of the spectrum, no? (One that often feels deadly to me, if I’m honest.) I for one make no apology for sharing the instinct and predilection for unreasonable colour; defying the banal. The essence of this Dylan Thomas stuff is love of life.
The current BBC Wales production is brilliantly as well as lavishly cast, bringing together a fabulous and familiar but authentic posse of Welsh talent. Most clearly revel in it – and again, who wouldn’t? Apart from the above-named stars the likes of Katherine Jenkins and Bryn Terfel are called upon, in both cases to sing as well as act – briefly. Casting the former, in the role of Polly Garter, was deliciously sharp. You may find yourself caught between laughing or letching but I predict you will generally be caught, somewhere in the gambol.
The notes (on BBCiplayer – go within the next three days!) describe, somewhat pretentiously, a ‘community’ of Welsh performers. This sounds counter to both the notion and actuality of a production linking/sharing points and people ‘twixt L.A. and Laugharne itself. (Laptops are as key to this as erm… lapwings). We, the audience, are bounced between places which are essentially locations only for the words; a bedroom; a car; a room with a view over Llareggub. Meaning the actors faces and those words (only) carry us. But there is something shared here, and yes, I’m thinking something of the communal about the evident, joyful, raising of the actor’s game. We are wrapped within it, as are they.
Hard and probably wrong to single out moments or performances. (Go see, you fools!) However, Sheen’s opening monologue is magnificently compelling. It’s authoritative and true – big-league in a good way like Gareth Bale back from Real for an exhibition match at The Liberty (say). Playing absurdly stunningly but with humility.
I may be wrong but I like to think that Sheen bought in to the idea of this as a both a national event and a privilege – and one in which he led. He would know that the myths and loves around Dylan Thomas and Wales are so inseparable in their big-hearted, boozy expressivity that there is a feeling of something essential here, beyond any literary or poetic quality the work may have.
The production itself is smart enough to offer a glimpse or two of actors watching other actors. So as Sheen begins the capture, we see or sense there is delight and maybe a touch of awe in the excitement of the watching troupe. It’s – in this case – a delightful device. Inspiring, I imagine, for the supporting cast.
But please do watch. Watch and mainly listen. If unfamiliar don’t go in there thinking there’s any real action. It’s just words. I would argue it’s freeing and even revelatory for those who read or write at all – and I do mean at all – but waddoo I know? I’m the sort of bloke who smiles when folk (well, the dead) ask
Is there bosoms and robins?
Fightin’ an’ onions?
Or when the town gossip screeches
Who’s Dead? Who’s dyin’?
There’s a lovely day – aaaw the cost of soap flakes!
But waddoo I know?
I know there’s something powerful caught here, in Under Milk Wood; still.
I’ve watched this production three times and tried to calm down and say something sensible and articulate and mature. But I am undone by smiles. The thing is a triumph and a joy. It’s there to be felt and heard. Thomas feels hilariously, possibly weirdly relevant to a Wales that is as sassy and starlit – or as dumb and dusky – as the next place. 100 years on from his birth, Laugharne(I know) is still beautiful and sleepy and murderously awash with gossip and treachery and love that divides as well as binds. Like everywhere.
So how is it unique? Simple answer… because of the voices. Voices that this poet, Dylan Thomas, from a writing shed overlooking the Taf, really heard, really felt.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/i/p01x5k4n/ – do watch!!