This is a marquee year for Dylan Thomas as it is both the centenary of his birth and 60 years since the posthumous BBC premiere of his final, never-quite-finished masterpiece, Under Milk Wood. To celebrate, a new suite of illustrations by Peter Blake has gone on show at the National Museum of Wales; now Terry Hands directs a major revival that will tour both the UK and America.
It is ironic, of course, that both these events introduce a visual aspect to a drama originally conceived for radio. Nor is Under Milk Wood the simplest work to stage as Thomas's depiction of the sleepily subversive Welsh town of Llareggub (trying reading that backwards) is packed with anecdotal incident yet short on actual drama.
Hands astutely recognises that the real action is contained within the language itself, which pulses and writhes with internal rhyme, alliteration and onomatopoeia. He presents Thomas's "play for voices" as an ensemble of voices at play, with 13 actors assuming the 60-odd roles in an exuberant chorus of polyphonic gossip. It is almost too much to absorb at once; yet Richard Burton, who was originally cast in the omniscient role of First Voice, was surely correct when he observed: "The entire thing is about religion, the idea of death and sex." The spiralling, circular design by Martyn Bainbridge affords a birds-eye view of the town while suggesting the furtive, Freudian undercurrents stirring it up. You draw your own conclusions about Gossamer Beynon, the schoolteacher who thrills to the ticklish sensation of a sailor's "goatbeard"; Bessie Bighead "kissed once by the pig-sty when she wasn't looking"; and Dai Bread who dreams of "Turkish girls. Horizontal". And has there ever been a more poignant image of spinsterly unfulfilment than Myfanwy Price's "lonely, loving hotwaterbottled body"?
The pitch-perfect, brisk tempo of the delivery is testament to the exemplary ensemble of Welsh actors that Hands has developed in Clwyd over the past 15 years. But if one is to single out the finest contributions, Polly Garter's song of lost love is plaintively sung by Katie Elin-Salt; the doggerel sermonising of Simon Nehan's Rev Eli Jenkins is hilariously overripe and Owen Teale shows outstanding mastery of the tongue-twisting commentary of the First Voice. Try saying "sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea" at performance speed and you'll get an idea of how hard he has worked.
• Kenneth Tynan on Under Milk Wood: a true comedy of humours
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