Under Milk Wood

For 30 years now, Guy Masterson has been successfully taking on the monumental challenge of presenting Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood as a solo show; revelations from the fictional town of Llareggub (read if backwards) somewhere in Wales.

Masterson's remarkable performance skills shine through.

The sleepy settlement is close to the sea and a place of estuarine activity, which is suggested at the outset by the noise of seagulls flying around making their distinctive “huoh-huoh-huoh” choking call. It’s the start of a soundscape that will delight throughout as we pass the farms and fields and journey through the streets, popping into the pub, the chapel and the homes of unsuspecting parishioners to invade their privacy. Even their dreams and thoughts are vulnerable to exposure. With seemingly little to keep the locals occupied it’s a place of gossip, where being nosey is a full-time job and where many could list their main occupation as ‘busy-body’.

Hints of the style are to be found from when Thomas was only seventeen in an article he wrote for the school magazine, but greater influences came during the time he spent living in Laugharne, which, like Llareggub has a castle, and a clock tower of the sort mentioned in Myfanwy Price's dreams. His move to New Quay gave him further inspiration for images and stories of seafaring men and is where he started to write the version we know today, although it went with him on his travels and sojourns elsewhere before various readings of the almost-completed work in 1953 before being published in 1954.

While the characters are not individually intended to represent people in those places, he clearly drew on the many people he knew and met to create his fictional dramatis personae. Word has it that Butcher Beynonis far too closely resembles butcher and publican Carl Eynon in the neighbouring town of St Clears for it to be an accident. The same could be said for postman Willy Nilly’s connection to Town Crier and postie, Jack Lloyd. Thomas’s skill, however, resides not just in his descriptions of the area and the people but in the life with which he infuses them and the emotionally wide-ranging stories, events and issues he creates around them.

There’s Mrs.Ogmore-Pritchard, who despite both her husbands being dead, still berates them on a daily basis, while the blind Captain Cat laments the lives of shipmates lost at sea. Organ Morgan, meanwhile, resorts to musical interludes on his instrument to escape all around him. A total of sixty-nine characters appear in Under Milk Wood, that starts and ends its twenty-four-hour expose by intruding into people’s dreams as they lie asleep.

The text moves rapidly from one person to another and Masterson has a voice for each of them. He was born in London to a Welsh mother and Italian father and attended the University of Wales, Cardiff. With their voices around him and the heritage of his great uncle, the celebrated actor Richard Burton, he was well-prepared for the task. Be they women, children, men or even animals he brings them all to life with intonations for every occasion, reminding us that this was originally a work for radio, which he has now transformed for the stage. Equally as vital to his performance as the mild Welsh accent is his physicality; an element that in itself speaks volumes. From the fingertips to the toes, from minute indications to dramatic gestures, from the head to the limbs and engaging the whole body in twists, turns and tumbles he relentlessly animates Thomas’ poetic lines. As Polly Garter he makes a fine scrubber on his hands and knees, vigorously cleaning the floors of her house dressed in the pyjamas he wears throughout.

Ideally, this sharing of the lives of so many people should be an intimate theatrical experience, but in the cavernous setting of Wilton’s Music Hall that is lost. Tony Boncza’s direction makes full use of the ample space. The cyclorama wall functions impressively for the huge shadow effects and white-cross projection. The music and soundscape from Matt Clifford along with the lighting design by Tom Turner are effective and well managed by Indigo & Tallulah Scholz-Mastroianni and Steven Moore. However, when Masterson is brought down from the expansive stage, with its versatile lone chair, the issue of space and distance becomes clear. The lower level apron is much closer to the audience, and from this position the rapid fire of words has greater clarity and imminence with the less hollow acoustic.

Wilton’s is a production setting that doesn’t do it justice, but despite that Masterson's remarkable performance skills shine through.

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Performances

Location

The Blurb

Olivier Award winner, Masterson brings all 69 of Dylan Thomas’ wonderfully quirky inhabitants of the fictional Welsh village Llareggub to life. Blind Captain Cat, to Rosie Probert and the Reverend Eli Jenkins, are all assiduously recreated in an amazing feat of memory and physical virtuosity.

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