Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

The town that was mad

PAUL DAVIES explains the thinking behind Volcano Theatre Company's production of Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood

Volcano has just finished touring a produc tion of Under Milk Wood. Now that the tour has been completed I feel better able to assess some of the real and fictitious problems that we had to face. Of course there were the usual difficulties that affect'all, or most, theatre produc tions. Problems in Macedonia meant the Albanian National Theatre of Minorities based in Skopje could not collaborate, as we had planned, on the project. Partly as a result of our own financial situation (Volcano were not originally funded by the Arts council of Wales to make the show) rehearsal time was cut to three weeks. The director joined us with only two weeks to go; at the preview people walked out shortly after "To begin at the beginning" had begun! The local news paper printed a hostile letter concerning the performance; some members of the Arts Council came to see the show and didn't like it and finally Thomas's agents declared that we had no right to adapt the text in any way. The usual local difficulties then!

In a more positive fashion I suppose I should add that the production was something of a success. Over 1,200 people came to see it at the Grand in Swansea, there were sell-out performances in Cardiff, Aberystwyth, around England and in Stuttgart, Germany. The production has also been invited to London's South Bank and to tour Romania and Turkey by the British Council.

Apart from these particular problems, Under Milk Wood gave Volcano, which has been based in Swansea for more than 10 years, a chance to re-assess the significance of Thomas' most famous work. This reassessment was not done in any systematic sense - rather it emerged during the course of our attempts to theatricalise Under Milk Wood. To over simplify the matter - I would say that We began with some hostility towards Milk Wood and ended with a great deal more sympathy. I should like, briefly, to chart this journey.

Under Milk Wood occupies an ambivalent place within Anglo-Welsh culture. It is by turns celebrated and vilified. Within the City of Swansea itself that ambivalence is clear for all to see. Thomas features upon a pretty awful mural that greets the visitor by train, there are a couple of statues, a moribund amateur theatre company and a Dylan Thomas Centre that appears to attract its fair share of consultancy reports which no doubt begin with the question: "Does Dylan Thomas mean any thing to this City?" Does he indeed?! A local politician of some repute thought he knew the answer to this question - it was, he claimed, only the English who read Thomas. There is, however, a very good second-hand bookshop - Dylan's Bookstore run by the indefatigable Jeff Towns.

Perhaps David Holbrook would have agreed. In his view (Liareggub Revisited, 1962) Thomas' popularity could be attributed to the growth of a repressed, lower middle class, suburban population. Who knows? All those wicked wirelesses! Post-war democracy cost us dear, although I wonder how much more this class must answer for.

Volcano had no great wish or desire to disturb the neat net curtains of these arguments. And I suppose in truth we didn't. Thomas will always have his passionate supporters and his inveterate opponents. In the theatre our starting point was to accept the contradictory nature of Under Milk Wood. We considered that the central question was what kind of place was this UnderMilk Wood.? (This seemed to us to be rather a different type of question than an enquiry into how representative Milk Wood was of the varied and complex Welsh constituencies.)Where was it? And why was it like it was? We found some kind of answer to these questions from within the territory of utopian vision and thought. UnderMilk Wood was not to be found in Llareggub, Laugharne or some other suitably isolated West Walian town. Rather it was nowhere - and nowhere in the sense of its utopian, other worldly aspects. Under Milk Wood appeared to me to mix its utopian sources. It was arcadian, a land of cockaigne, a rural fantasy of abundance, happiness (even when individual goals were thwarted), sexual freedom and general ease. (Utopia and tHe Ideal Society by J.C. Davis (1981))

Within the general terms of this utopian vision it is not difficult to see how Thomas's work could be assimilated to a tradition of homily, nostalgia and polite retreat. (William Morris's News from Nowhere has, in a similar fashion, often been read as a medieval fantasy, the product of a man and a mind unable to come to terms with a developing modernism) In defence of Thomas however, one can say that within the range of his intentions retreat was simply one option.

As Walford Davies makes clear in his introduction to the new Everyman edition Thomas had very different plans. Volcano took Thomas's outline for a very different Under Milk Wood as the basis for their theatre production. We subtitled our theatre piece "The Town that Was Mad". Thomas's early provisional title for Under Milk Wood. In addition we concentrated on the darker side of the characters that Thomas had invented. One result of this was that, in the words of the western mail, we had "rip(ped) away the cosy veneer of Milk Wood to reveal the devil in its inhabitants, devils common to us all". This may have been in keeping with Thomas's proposed intention to extend the night sequence and demonstrate that the inhabitants of Milk Wood were far from content with their life in this the "strangest town in Wales". To that end Thomas had, as is well known, conceived of putting the town on trial as a place of obvious insanity. This device would have enabled an audience to consider the attraction, or otherwise of Milk Wood and in turn examine, by way of contrast, the desirability of their / our own lives.

For all sorts of reasons Thomas did not write into Milk Wood any of these scenarios. They remain possibilities latent within the work. For Volcano, however, they were vital interpretative tools with which we could restore a more critical uto pian edge to the theatre production. Our presentation of Under Milk Wood was sentimental, romantic and on occasions lyrical but it was also something more. It was an active utopia engaging with our lives - rather than presenting an ahistorical dream play. The characters were dysfunctional, anarchic, lost, dangerous and every so often just plain mad.

Certainly our production failed to illuminate a specifically Welsh component to Under Milk Wood. We preferred to present it as a still-born expenment in the utopian mode. The price the inhabit ants of Milk Wood paid for their utopian vision was not the timeless ease of a rural idyll. but the terrible knowledge that as surely as this life has its lighter and darker sides, it must also be a life that will soon change forever.

author:Paul Davies

original source: New Welsh review #35, Winter 1996/97
01 December 1996


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