September 12, 2011
Oxford Playhouse, 9 Sept 2011It’s not always nice to be proved wrong, but this evening I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my preconceptions were incorrect. I’m talking about the presentation of Under Milk Wood at the Oxford Playhouse. Having grown up with the classic recording from 1954 featuring the marvellously mellifluous tones of Richard Burton, which brought the characters of Llareggub to life, I thought that any other attempt to portray it would be second-best. However, Guy Masterson managed to amuse and engage an enraptured audience as he tackled the play for voices entirely on his own (even Burton had help from other actors, but Masterson portrayed 69 characters without any assistance). While my now-fading recording relied purely on sound to paint pictures in the mind, Masterson (who is Burton’s great-nephew) displayed considerable acting skill to portray the dreaming characters of a small Welsh seaside town.
He is helped, of course, by the script. Poetry can often leave me cold but Dylan Thomas’s words are incredibly descriptive and engaging. Masterson embellishes them with acting that never flinches from being physical and facial expressions that roam from imbecilic to coquettish, downtrodden to triumphant. And he does it with only one prop: a chair.
Special mention should also be made of the soundtrack, where music and sound effects help create atmosphere and add clarity throughout the performance.
I’m reminded of the day in the mid nineties when I first heard the song Hallelujah, sung by Jeff Buckley. I loved it and that became the definitive version for me, surpassing even writer Leonard Cohen’s version. However, I have also come to appreciate other versions (I think there are at least eight versions on my iPod) and they all have their own merits (except for Alexandra Burke’s!). The same applies here. If you don’t know the poem (or is it a play?) already, you’ll enjoy discovering the beauty of Thomas’s language. If you’ve read it but haven’t heard the Burton version, you’ll love the way the story is told. And if you’re familiar with Burton, don’t let that put you off seeing this treatment – it’s a treat in a different way.