Bringing the poetry of Dylan Thomas to vivid life

BELLA BARTOCK gets another whiff of the greasepaint as a modern Welsh classic comes to the Ashcroft Theatre

As the latest series of Game of Thrones was finishing last night, Ser Alliser Thorne, or as he is better known, actor Owen Teale, was playing a leading role in the opening night at the Ashcroft Theatre of what could prove to be an artistic highlight of the year.

All religion, sex and death: Owen Teale leads the production of Under Milk Wood at the Ashcroft Theatre this week. Picture by Catherine Ashmore

All religion, sex and death: Owen Teale leads the production of Under Milk Wood at the Ashcroft Theatre this week. Picture by Catherine Ashmore

Clwyd Theatr Cymru’s production of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood wrapped the audience in the dreams and lives of the downtrodden and peculiarly repressed residents, both dead and alive, of the fictional Welsh fishing village of the imagination of the Welsh poet, whose centenary year this is.

Teale oozes charming mellifluous tones in a part that always carries the burden of being compared to Richard Burton’s dominance of the role in past radio, television and film productions. That challenge is well met by the Royal Shakespeare Company-trained actor who enunciates the colour of Thomas’s words to provide for the very best appreciation by the audience.

The “play” does create an awkward task for the performers of bringing what was originally a poetic script reading into a stage performance, bringing Thomas’s words, so heavily laden with meaning, to life on the stage.

Thomas’s boldly drawn characterisations are, though, a gift to this set of high-profile and experienced Welsh actors. Ifan Huw Dafydd, as Captain Cat and Mr Waldo, and Steven Meo, in various parts, both impress, and newcomer Sophie Melville is clearly a star for the future with a playful capacity to capture and hold an audience’s attention. After the performance, I had a chat with the American producer, Karl Sydow, who said he “could not hold back ‘the actor’ in the actors all the way through the production”.

There are high production values here, too, with a marvellous set that is dominated by a great overhanging roundel lit to represent the village and the progression from times of the villagers’ night time dreams to daytime reminiscences.

The charcoal-blue lighting in the early stages of the performance deftly marks the dark moods of the characters and their inventor. The red lighting at the end of the performance day adds a drama to 10 of the players atop the peak of the stage furniture.

“It is all about religion, sex and death,” Burton said of the work. It is, though, even more in its sense of repressed emotion, brazen sexuality, misogyny -“men are brutes on the quiet”  – and the sullen disciplines of village life. Under Milk Wood is also a mirror that Thomas held up to himself.

A member of the cast reported confided to me that the run on Croydon this week represented the poorest sales take-up on the 11-stop English tour. The actor spoke of just 125 bookings and another 125 turning up on the night in the 749-seat auditorium. The Ashcroft Theatre looked fuller than that, with about two-thirds of the stalls filled, but with the gallery closed.

With the play likely to go on tour to the United States and possibly Australia, this week’s run in Croydon, including matinee performances on Thursday and Saturday, is a not-to-be missed opportunity for south London theatre-goers.

Coming to Croydon

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