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Under Milk Wood

Dylan Thomas
Clwyd Theatr Cymru
York Theatre Royal

Caryl Morgan and the ensemble in Under Milk Wood Credit: Catherine Ashmore
Kai Owen, Owen Teale and Richard Elfyn in Under Milk Wood Credit: Catherine Ashmore
Owen Teale in Under Milk Wood Credit: Catherine Ashmore

The theatre-goer’s response to this production of Dylan Thomas’s ‘Play for Voices’ will depend greatly on their relationship to the original text, and disposition towards an essentially non-dramatic piece in a production sometimes straining to insert drama.

The Clwyd Theatr Cymru’s presentation of the play, marking the centenary of Thomas’s birth, has much to commend it but rides somewhat roughshod over some of its quieter moments.

Martyn Bainbridge’s striking and beautiful design sets expectations high, the trompe l’oeil backdrop providing us with a bird’s-eye view of the mythical town of Llareggub. Throughout the performance, this setting is wonderfully complemented by director Terry Hands’s own lighting design.

The former RSC director has assembled a talented and experienced cast and fashioned a strong ensemble out of these eleven actors, all of whom are constantly present onstage (as is common in stage presentations of this ever-changing, ebbing and flowing play).

Owen Teale plays the role of First Voice, a part ever damned to comparisons with Richard Burton’s famous performance in the 1954 BBC Radio play. But Teale’s presence and (especially) rich, powerful vocal tones are splendid. He relishes the language, rolling it round his mouth and booming it out into the auditorium, with humour, variety, and at times even glowering vehemence.

It is a demanding role but he is a pleasure to watch. He could be the incarnation of some spirit of Thomas, with his smart but slightly wayward tie and suit sagging but stylish.

Second Voice, played by Christian Patterson, provides a less dishevelled, more jovial figure, a perfect counterpoint to Teale. The cast as a whole enjoy the text and the opportunity to incarnate the vastly differing characters, turning to watch others, and smiling warmly as the different denizens of the town become familiar.

They sing beautifully, both together and solo, and move with fluidity around the simple but effective and flexible set.

My reservations around the production are to do with exactly this enjoyment evidenced throughout the ensemble. At times, it seems, the characterisation of the different townsfolk tends towards out-of-proportion caricature.

While Thomas suffuses the piece with the raw experience of humanity—sex, death, youth and love are the faultlines on which Llareggub is constructed—this production plays too broadly on the extremes of lust and bodily functions with a tee-hee glee which at times overpowers the more affecting strands of the poetry.

Some of the characterisations are simply too large, too base, too broad to enable us really to become engaged with the characters beneath the comedy, and some moments which in other productions can be truly moving are here dwarfed by these performances.

The epistolary and ultimately unconsummated romance between Mog Edwards and Myfanwy Price, for instance, has little of the potentially deeply melancholy impact suggested by Thomas’s text.

This said, there are strong performances throughout, with the cast lending beautiful voice to Thomas’s textural, textual tale. Though lacking in drama, it is rich with life and language.

It is no coincidence that among the adulterers, wife-poisoners (in imagination at least), heavy drinkers and lustful youths of Thomas’s world, the only truly happy romance is the impossible, idealised one, carried out only through the written word.

Reviewer: Mark Smith