I know, for some, the stage is primarily a visual medium. Indeed some of my colleagues on this site have been known to, of all things, review dance and physical theatre performances that dispense with dialogue altogether. But for me, theatre is categorically literary in nature. The play’s the thing and, in the beginning, there is always the words.
Welcome evidence in support of this opinion comes in the form of Guy Masterson’s one-man rendering of Under Milk Wood, the defining work of firebrand Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. It is on stage at the historic Wilton’s Music Hall this week and the words are simply glorious. Seriously, it’s worth asking if the 20th Century has given us a more joyful work of poetry. Has anyone brought alive a place, and the people within it, with such loving detail as Thomas does with his fictional seaside town of Llareggub? Have the bawdy dreams of sailors, the wisdom of drunks, the pragmatic grief of widows or the erotic longings of the young been given voice by a single author so deliciously? I’ll save you pondering. The answer, quite definitely, is no.
Every sentence seems to give us something to treasure. It’s relentless in quality and dizzying in skill. One second there will be an eccentric but delightful metaphor, the next a profound human truth tossed lightly like flotsam in the rolling surf. It all comes with Celtic passion, the bravado of a writer at the top of his game and a lip-smacking love of language. A dream lover is “syrup-gold-maned, whacking thighed and piping hot” for example. Night becomes “starfall” as residents fall into “bread-pudding beds”. Listening, it truly makes you glad to be alive.
First conceived by a teenage Dylan in the 1930s, Under Milk Wood landed in the form we know and love on BBC Radio in 1954. There have been countless adaptations since, including a famous Richard Burton recording and a recent socially distanced version starring Michael Sheen at the National Theatre. Where does this version at Wilton’s Musical Hall sit amongst such august company? Totally at home. The sense we’re in safe hands is palpable.
Guy Masterson’s one-man take couldn’t be simpler. We are in the company of a fine, captivating actor and a single chair. If I had a slight gripe, I wish Masterson trusted his skills more and lighting and sound cues a little less. Matt Clifford’s music and soundscapes are rich but largely unnecessary. I found echo effects on Masterson’s voice particularly intrusive too. Much better to let us enjoy the text clearly and unadorned, surely?
Much is made of Masterson tackling sixty-nine different characters single-handedly in the show’s marketing. This is true. In fact, in the interests of accuracy, a few sheep, cows, dogs and donkeys probably need adding. This isn’t, however, what I’ll remember. If Masterson shines, it is because, ultimately, he is a simple storyteller urging us to do nothing but pause, listen and drink in Thomas’s verse.
Theatre writing is a broad church and I applaud it all, but some works stand Colossus-like above the rest. Under Milk Wood deserves its place amongst them.
Written by Dylan Thomas
Directed by Tony Boncza
Original direction by George Dillon
Music and Soundscapes by Matt Clifford
Additional Lighting Design by Tom Turner
Under Milk Wood plays at WIlton’s Music Hall until 13 May. Further information and bookings can be found here.