Writer: Dylan Thomas
Director: Terry Hands
Reviewer: James Garrington
As Dylan Thomas himself put it, “to begin at the beginning”, Under Milk Wood was, when originally written, intended as a radio play. It is a play for voices, a play intended to be heard and not seen. It is a play where very little happens, and the attraction lies almost exclusively in the language and the way that language fires the listener’s imagination. The original radio version had a huge number of characters too, and contains vivid, detailed descriptions of their characters, their actions and interactions, and of the different locations in the fictional village of Llareggub. This is a piece that could, in the wrong hands, suffer by being not only heard but also seen.
Fortunately there are no worries in this regard as the aptly named Terry Hands provides a very safe pair of hands, not only as director but also as lighting designer for the play. Not that he is alone in that regard; the cast of eleven are all sublime. They remain on stage throughout the play, and during the course of two hours the majority of them play four or five very different rôles, as we see snippets of life in the village.
In the pivotal rôle of First Voice is Owen Teale. This rôle was famously played by Richard Burton in the original radio version, and Teale certainly does not suffer by comparison. He delivers Thomas’s tongue-twisting words in a soft, lilting Welsh accent, with a gravitas and lightness of touch where needed; and there are an awful lot of words. The text is wonderfully descriptive, full of alliteration and adjectives, and must have involved a huge amount of work to master. Teale is ably supported by Christian Patterson in the rôle of Second Voice, no less lyrical in his delivery.
There are some stand-out and memorable moments from each of the cast, and it would be unfair to single out any one person. Ifan Huw Dafydd’s gives a well-judged performance as blind Captain Cat and Mr Waldo, happily embarking in a relationship with Hedydd Dylan’s Polly Garter, in whose garden “nothing grows but washing and babies” and who pines for her one lost love. Dylan gives a nicely contrasting performance as Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard, sternly dishing out her orders to her two husbands – even though they are both dead. Steven Meo doesn’t put a foot wrong as Organ Morgan, Nogood Boyo, Ocky Milkman, Willy Nilly and Sinbad Sailors, providing some of the laugh-out-loud moments in the show. Richard Elfyn is a mad-eyed Mr Pugh, dreaming of poisoning his wife, a shrew-like performance by Sophie Melville and a real contrast to her Gossamer Beynon. Sara Harris-Davies is a delightful Rosie Probert, while Simon Mehan’s performance as Rev Eli Jenkins is nicely-observed. Caryl Morgan’s Myfanwy Price contrasts well with her maid-off-all-work Lily Smalls, and Kai Owen completes the cast as farmer Utah Watkins, counting sheep while his wife counts stitches.
The real star of the play, though, is the text and director Terry Hands and designer Martyn Bainbridge have quite rightly focussed on that in the staging. There is a simple set which provides a birds-eye view of the village, with nothing more than a spiralling ramp and a set of hard chairs for scenery. Elegantly designed lighting takes us from dead of night when the play opens, through the following day with the passage of time being marked by a sun sweeping down towards the horizon as night falls.
Clwyd Theatre Cymru has assembled an outstanding company, some experienced and others barely out of training, working together with the classic text to provide a wonderful piece of theatre and an absolute delight. I could happily sit through the whole evening again.
Photo: Catherine Ashmore | Runs until 7th June 2014