A final pre-readathon feature from the archives
To whet appetites for the forthcoming Wales Readathon, I have once again been rummaging through old files to find a suitable feature to repost. I came upon a performance review I first wrote and published in 2003 on the now defunct All-Info About Poetry website – the year in which we marked the 50th anniversary of Dylan Thomas’s death.
I hope it puts you in the mood for a wealth of Welsh wordsmiths.
FROM THE ARCHIVE
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog
The Emlyn Williams Theatre, Mold, North Wales: 20th February 2003
Clwyd Theatr Cymru commemorated the 50th anniversary of the death of the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) with a superb run of performances by a small but accomplished cast of actors.
Described in the programme as “A theatrical journey through the prose writing of Dylan Thomas”, the production was created by Tim Baker, an Associate of the Royal National Theatre, who won the Manchester Evening News Best Visiting Production award in 1992 for the highly acclaimed To Kill a Mockingbird.
Although Thomas is best known for his ‘play for voices’, Under Milk Wood, his evocative poems such as ‘Fern Hill’ and ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ are rarely overlooked when anthologies celebrating 20th century poetry are put together. Indeed, this mesmerizing interpretation of Thomas’s short stories could well be described as a rich fusion of prose and poetry. For example, in a scene crossing a river he speaks of, “slipping stepping stones” and early on in the piece he describes his “love” of words thus:
“And these words were, to me, as the notes of bells, the sounds of musical instruments, the noises of wind, sea and rain, the rattle of milk carts, the clopping of hooves on cobbles, the fingering of branches on a window pane, might be to someone deaf from birth, who has miraculously found his hearing.”
The company of five use only stools and orange boxes to set the scenes for Thomas’s vivid recollections of his boyhood in Swansea. The young Dylan is played brilliantly by Russell Gomer, who struts and capers across the hazily lit stage, reliving the poet’s every memory as if it was his own. His fellow actors play a myriad of characters. The slightly built but enormously gifted Zoë Davies is adept at playing both male and female roles, from oppressed aunts to inebriated old men. And Morgan Walters, a ginger-haired giant of a man, is memorable for his portrayal of the young poet’s bear-like uncle, as well as Les, Thomas’s friend who invents names for passing strangers, and as a relation who steals livestock to pay for drinking binges. Whilst the cherubic-faced David Rees Talbot puts in a particularly memorable performance as Ray, a young man whose tragic past is briefly forgotten but inevitably revisited when he and Thomas ramble to the seaside to paddle in the surf.
The enigmatic and engaging Thomas lived a short and self-destructive, if literary fruitful life. His father, an English teacher at the local grammar school, began to read Shakespeare to him at the age of four and he started to write poetry in his eighth year. His childhood and adolescence were central to his later work – although he left school without formal qualifications and did not learn the Welsh language. He moved from Swansea to London in 1934, famously remarking, “The land of my fathers. My fathers can keep it.”
Thomas’s first two books, 18 Poems and Twenty-five Poems, were published respectively in 1934 and 1936. He married Caitlin Macnamara in 1937 (they had three children during their tempestuous years together) and he made his first radio broadcast with Life and the Modern Poet on the BBC Welsh Services the following year.
After the Second World War, his popularity as a poet grew in direct proportion to his reputation as a heavy drinker. However, his positive, rhetorical style won an enthusiastic following and poems such as ‘A Refusal to Mourn the Death by Fire of a Child in London’ led to lecture tours of the United States. He died in St. Vincent’s Hospital, New York, on 9th November 1953.
This stage adaptation of Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Dog – so bristling with humour and pathos – will undoubtedly delight parents and teachers endeavouring to introduce young people to Thomas’s work. Adult audiences will also be entranced by its wry, witty narrative and flamboyant presentation. There is little doubt that, in the future, new theatrical companies will revive the production and it will become a fitting tribute to one of the world’s great 20th century poets.