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Under Milk Wood: sensuality and wonder

by | Apr 22, 2023 | Review | 0 comments

publicity photo for Under Milk Wood

David Hollinshead as the scheming Mr. Pugh (Photo by Nancy Caldwell)

I don’t know if language gets more glorious than this. The poetry in Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, a radio play from 1954 that was adapted for the stage, is unabashedly beautiful.

In it, two narrators introduce us to the fictional Welsh town of Llareggub (“buggerall” spelled backwards). I don’t know how you’ll react but, as soon as I heard their description of the night and its “slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea,” I was in. Like in.

Referring to the townspeople, the voices tell us, “From where you are, you can hear their dreams.”

“Young girls lie bedded soft,” they continue, “with rings and trousseaux, bridesmaided by glowworms down the aisles of the organplaying woods.”

This text might look overwrought as you’re reading it but, hearing it, it feels concretely ecstatic: even without speaking it yourself, you know how good it would feel in your mouth.

And it just keeps coming. Thomas leads us through a one-day cycle in the town: dreaming, waking, gossiping, yearning, mourning … dreaming.

The characters speak, sing, and interact.

A lot of it is sexy. Referring to Sinbad Sailors, the young tavernkeeper who is less educated than she is, schoolteacher Gossamer Beynon declares, “I don’t care if he does drop his aitches, so long as he’s all cucumber and hooves.”

And where there’s sex, there’s death. Blind Captain Cat mourns his old shipmates and his one true love, the prostitute Rosie Probert. Unmarried Polly Garter doesn’t mind being judged for her brood of children, yet she has regrets. The song she sings about her many lovers includes the refrain: “But the one I loved best awake or asleep/Was little Willy Wee and he’s six feet deep.”

Alertness to the glories of existence intensified by awareness of their transience is sometimes taken to the point of madness: in his “kitchen full of time”, Lord Cut-glass “listens to the voices of his sixty-six clocks, one for each year of his loony age, and watches, with love, their moony black-and-white loudlipped faces tocking the earth away.”

The language of Under Milk Wood shimmers and its mediation on mortality resonates.

That said, 90 minutes is a long time to listen to an unbroken stream of poetry. About half an hour in, I started scanning the horizon for refreshers and palate cleansers. There’s a good deal of humour, which helps: the beleaguered Mr. Pugh comically plots to poison his complaining wife, for instance. And Thomas threads in songs and children’s games.

Still, even though director Joan Bryans and her design team deliver a pleasing physical production, I longed for a more audaciously theatrical vision. It didn’t come, so I just had to hunker down.

But don’t let this complaint stop you from seeing Vital Spark’s production of Under Milk Wood.

As I hope I’ve made clear, the text is rewarding — and, in this impressively solid amateur production, it’s brought to life by a very able cast of 20.

I want to mention just a couple of individual performances. I was in love with the sensual and emotional ease of Dana Schindel’s Polly Garter and the delight that Joan Koebel brings in her portraits of a farmer’s wife who speaks like a bleating sheep and a character named Mary Ann Sailors, who dreams of the Garden of Eden. Mary Ann praises “the green peas that grow up through the lap of her frock that brushes the dew.”

I am all for sensuality — and wonder. There’s plenty of both right here.

 UNDER MILK WOOD By Dylan Thomas. Directed by Joan Bryans. A Vital Spark Theatre production. On Friday, April 21 at the Jericho Arts Centre. Running at the Jericho Arts Centre until April 30, then transferring to the Metro Theatre May 5 to 14. Tickets

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