Until this month’s centenary of Dylan Thomas’ birth, I had never actually heard or seen his play Under Milk Wood. The BBC Cymru Wales’ multi-starred version demonstrated vividly what I have missed.
The language of the play seems so similar to that of James Joyce in Ulysses. Full of the same rich word-blends and alliterations and assonances and sibilants, full of the same descriptive lists and saucy sensual observation and quirky names. Except for one thing: Under Milk Wood is almost always immediately able to be understood and appreciated!
This version had a few production touches which didn’t add anything for me. The device of showing some performers at laptops seemed a contrived way to acknowledge the play’s origins as a radio broadcast. Likewise, placing one narrator in a New York pub merely because Dylan Thomas had sometimes drunk there. And although Katherine Jenkins used her singing voice capably as Polly Garters, her own persona is a bit prim and wholesome for the lines her character was speaking. However, plenty of appropriate deliveries elsewhere, rich but not ripe.
This Under Milk Wood made an interesting comparison with the 1972 film. The latter was made 40 years closer to the world which its author experienced and this is apparent in many ways in which it looks and sounds. Although its publicity must have boasted about the appearances of Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O’Toole, the performances of less famous actors seem more fitting and striking to me, plus the fact that it clearly the pet project of a forgotten director, Andrew Sinclair.
This Dylan Thomas centenary draws attention to the fact that the poet himself has become a bit forgotten. Yet during my youth, he was a very palpable literary ghost. One change came with the passing of the actors of his generation associated with his work, notably Burton. Another was surely the reduction in the male working-class influence in British society, of which the Welsh were once such a visible part: employed in coal and steel, enjoying the dominance of the Welsh rugby teams. The deceased Thomas seemed to be part of that culture; male and iconic. Since then the more prominent Celtic culture has tended to come from Scotland or Ireland. Thomas’ poetry sounds a bit too rhetorical or operatic now, compared to Seamus Heaney’s variety and subtlety, as does his reading style. But Under Milk Wood has aged well.