IN the week that the old theatrical warhorse Sir Alan Ayckburn warns that theatres outside of London are in danger of terminal decline unless they “create more exciting work”, his fellow cultural journeyman Terry Hands, at Clwyd Theatr Cymru, is vibrantly demonstrating that verve, imagination and artistic excellence yet tramp the boards way beyond the capital.
Hands' take on the piece is captivating,
engaging and joyously imbued with the observational humour that flows through
this whimsical tale of tittle-tattle and banter
Everyman Theatre founder Hands, a veteran of thespian triumphs and tragedies, has chosen the much-adored-yet-little-staged Under Milk Wood, by the wondrous Welsh poet (and some might call “the well lubricated narcissist”) Dylan Thomas to make his point; and, by the by, to mark the centenary of the bard’s birth.
And, if you’ll pardon the play on words, what a fine fist Mr Hands makes of it, boyo, as Thomas might intone.
His take on the piece is captivating, engaging and joyously imbued with the observational humour that flows through this whimsical tale of tittle-tattle and banter.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, or rather the dialogue, Under Milk Wood is set over a 24-hour period in a fictional small Welsh seaside town, coined Llareggub by the droll sage of Swansea; the name in fact making up the words “bugger all” backwards. Here we are invited to listen to the dreams, plans and private thoughts of the townsfolk and then, as the town awakens, we watch their lives unfold.
Swansea-born actor Owen Teale takes pole position as Lead Voice with a fine cast of 11 taking on the multiple roles of the original 38 characters represented in Thomas’s pastiche of Welsh culture, language and social mores.
Teale is an accomplished stage and film actor, with a long pedigree of credits including latterly the West End’s Passion Play with Zoë Wanamaker,and, of course, the television gore and intrigue spectacle Game of Thrones where he was Alliser Thorne.
The role of Lead Voice is surely demanding and it is no surprise that, on this occasion, Teale looked at times a tad strained with the effort, but he was buttressed extremely well by Christian Patterson as Second Voice, who was, indeed, in fine voice, and clearly – like the rest of the cast – enjoying this outing enormously.
The first night capacity audience was equally enchanted by the exuberant performances, and sheer lyrical joy and cadence of the language that makes the works of Dylan Thomas so enjoyable, and so quintessentially Welsh.
The striking set by Martyn Bainbridge is spare yet most appropriate. Hanging above the stage is a circular diorama of what is supposed to be the town, which some say was modelled on the village of Laugharne, in Camarthenshire, where Thomas lived for a spell, or even New Quay which it resembles. The performers are then scattered around what look like two sloping slipways into the sea, which provide a more than adequate prop for the often pantomime-like antics that draw in the audience.
This production also comes on the 60th anniversary of the play’s British premiere by the BBC in 1954, although it had its first stage reading in May 1953 in New York when Dylan Thomas himself memorably took the parts of First Voice and the Reverend Eli Jenkins; the latter in this latest version at Mold played with enthusiasm by Simon Nehan who also tackles Jack Black, Mr Ogmore and Butcher Benyon.
Naturally, in the circumstances, Hands has assembled a fine bunch of home-grown thespians to interpret the – shall we say – idiosyncrasies of the Welsh identity, featuring a glorious penchant for vocal rhythms and tempos that are such a key element of the native language, and which carry over somewhat into the English in that lovely sing-song style.
Here we meet such memorable creatures as Captain Cat, Sinbad Sailors, Dai Bread, Nogood Boyo, The Reverand Eli Jenkins, Mae Rose Cottage, Bessie Bighead, Lord Cut Glass and Polly Garter et al; all shaped from the inventiveness of the razor sharp, if rather surreal, intellect of Mr Dylan Thomas, who would surely savour this production.
The depiction of the entanglement and friction between men and women is one of Thomas’s particular strengths and the traits are hilariously and - with no intent to unwisely disparage 50 per cent of the Welsh nation - defined in the performances of Katie Elin-Salt, Sara Harris-Davies, Sophie Melville and Caryl Morgan who effortlessly capture the essential - erm - temperamental nature of such individuality.
The male roles too are played with vigour and are often comically, and riotously, slap-stick as portrayed by Ifan Huw Dafyyd, a towering force as Captain Cat and Mr Waldo, along with Richard Elfyn, Steven Meo and Kai Owen who all convey the very essence of the Welsh disposition and psyche forged by Celtic passions...and indeed poetry.
Dylan ThomasCantering into his eighth decade, Terry Hands has been inspirational in North Wales since taking the helm in 1997, although it seems longer. In 1964 he was one of a group that established the Everyman and then ran the Royal Shakespeare Company for almost 20 years from 1968.
This production will tour Wales after playing Mold until March 8th and then comes to England for five months with performances in York, Manchester and Liverpool and later embarks on a world tour, starting in New York in the autumn.
As they say in Wales: Chwarae-teg i chi…diolch yn fawr, Mr Hands. Fair play to you, thanks very much.
*Under Milk Wood/Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold, until March 8. Liverpool Playhouse May 2014.
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