Saturday 13 December 2014

Dylan Thomas a feast for noise-infested ears

Backdrop to the show : Dylan Thomas. Many who think of the Welsh poet (born one century ago at the start of the Great War) are apt to recall three factoids about him. (1) That Bobby Zimmerman from Hibbing, Minnesota adopted Thomas's forename to become Bob Dylan. (2) That Thomas died in New York City after downing some 17 whiskies at the White Horse Tavern up the street from his apartment at the Chelsea Hotel. (3) That one attending physician listed Thomas's cause of death "total abuse of the liver". It's been said before : all of this is true, and some of it might be factual.

Bob Kingdom reprises his one-man show Dylan Thomas : Return Journey in a final tour. The script was first written nearly 30 years ago. Sir Anthony Hopkins originally directed him in the role. The two of them edited & re-edited the piece over the years. Time to "return" Thomas to a picture of the man as he was in toto, not always the philandering drunk. At various times Kingdom has been quoted protesting "Any fool can drink and fall over. We're talking about a painstaking craftsman who made his poetry in the cold light of a Monday morning, not while standing at bars." Hemingway famously put it slightly differently : "Write drunk, edit sober."

How the piece works : The structure of the show is a lecture of the kind Thomas was giving across the USA during the last years and months of his life along with countless other Euros, lecturers with "pot-boiling philosophies". He accused the bulk of them suffering "with elaphantiasis of reputation -- huge trunks and tiny minds". But, like them, he certainly enjoyed himself when "the lovely money rolled luckily in". Autobio accounts of his childhood in Swansea are tangled up with full poem recitations -- notably "A Child's Christmas in Wales" and "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" and "Death Shall Have No Dominion" and "Fern Hill".

Curiously this "quintessential Welshman" as he is known hated the Welsh tongue as did his schoolmater father, noted to be both militaristic and an atheistic whipcracker. Neither one learned to speak "the mother tongue". Thomas had equally little time for flag-waving : "Fuck Welsh nationalism!" he spat at an interviewer once. Thus to some critics he is too English to be Welsh, to others, too Welsh to be English.

Kingdom's Thomas is a storyteller, lecturer, raconteur, a poetry slammer before his time. To listen to Kingdom's lilt is to lose oneself in a remarkable persona. (Truth be known I would not be able to tell if Kingdom's accent is Welsh or Irish or Icelandic, just not Glaswegian or Cockney, of that I'm roughly 90% certain.)

Critics' cut at him : Thomas is known as a lyric poet who immerses himself in rich images. He's clearly a romantic -- intuition, imagination, spontaneity, emotion -- all these are hallmarks, not the rigorously stylized religiosity of T.S. Eliot, say. Academic R. B. Kershner notes as well : "He has been a pagan, a mystic, a humanistic agnostic; his God has been identified with Nature, Sex, Love, Process, the Life Force...". 

Clearly Thomas was an early subscriber to the worldview of psychologist Ernest Becker. Becker's concluding sentence in his 1973 epic treatise The Denial of Death is this : "The most that any of us can seem to do is to fashion something -- an object or ourselves -- and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force." How else to parse this priceless line to his dad, where he notes how people are perhaps remembered for "their frail deeds [that] might have danced in the green bay".  

Kershner asserted further that Thomas "became the wild man from the West, the Celtic bard with the magical rant" whose rhythms were foreign to straight-jacket'd Britons. But those rants were obviously just the stuff for brash Americans who wooed him as much as he wowed them.

My favourite descriptor, meanwhile, flows from the pen of the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, himself an accomplished poet. "He was undoubtedly all that he has been represented as being -- a drunkard and philanderer, compulsively incompetent and dishonest about money, a parasite on the generosity of many friends...but his entire work struggles to articulate both a sense of the appalling and rich depths of the natural world and a clear-eyed compassion for all varieties of human oddity." Would we all could be worthy of the Archbishop's final eight words of benediction for Thomas. 

When Kingdom comes : "The rich depths of the natural world" indeed!  I came away from Mr. Kingdom's performance with tears in my eyes as he ended with a moving rendition of "Fern Hill". As the show concluded, I thought (if it has not already been done by some Ph.D. monk somewhere) how an analysis of the uses of the word \ colour "green" in Thomas's poetry would be fascinating. The green of innocence, the verdant Swansea hills and seashore, the green of naivete, it's all there. 

Then the myriad words to highlight "all varieties of human oddity". He speaks of his "steaming hulk of an uncle breathing like a brass band" in the wonderful piece "The Outing" where the men pub-hop of an August Sunday to a dozen or so Welsh roadhouses where they "hollered and rollicked in the dark hole like big bad boys" as they "hymned and rumpus'd all the beautiful afternoon" in their bus "bouncing with voices and flagons". Much to the chagrin of their wives and the amusement of the town kids.

In "Lament" Thomas notes there's "time enough when the blood breathes cold", summoning "a black sheep with a crumpled horn" in one image, ending by noting "all the deadly virtues [that] plague my death". During one lecture he laments : "I fall down stairs, I frighten myself in the night, my own plump banshee." These are just rich, rich images.

Back when he was a child at Christmas, however, he would rejoice at the church bells from the "bat-black belfries [that] boomed for joy under my window" and marvel at the "aunts [who] scuttled to and fro with their tureens", particularly Aunt Hannah who toggled between tea-&-rum and parsnip wine and wound up serenading the universe from a snowbank in the garden.

And I find the finish to "Child's Christmas" surprisingly unsentimental in its capture, oh so elegantly, of an innocent day become night :

"Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-coloured snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed, I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept." 

Who gonna like : Dylan Thomas : Return Journey is in fact a journey of return. A return to words, words in the hands of a master, a master to whom the words themselves meant to him more than their Collins' or Oxford Unabridged Dictionary definitions.  How else could he come up with lines that speak of "lovers [who] lie in their beds with all their griefs in their arms...the griefs of the ages". 

Yes, it's Thomas's keen sense of language -- with all its assonance and consonance and dissonance, its numerous hard-k's, its rhythms of short snap-shot sentence fragments -- that is executed so deliciously, poignantly and memorably by Bob Kingdom. 

For folks who love life, laughter, and the lilt of language that dances on the ears, this performance of Richard Jordan Productions (UK) surely is a Can't miss! proposition.

At the Cultch Historic Theatre through December 21. In two acts, 45 minutes apiece. Visit or phone 604.251-1363 for more info & tickets.


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