"The strangest town in Wales” is what the poet Dylan Thomas dubbed Laugharne, the place he made his home in the four years before his death in 1953. And it was the people of this Carmarthenshire town, with its castle and its cockle-trade, who inspired his “Play for Voices”, Under Milk Wood.
2014 is Thomas’s centenary, and there’s no shortage of events celebrating his life and writing. Receiving particular attention is Under Milk Wood: an affectionate, bawdy but beautifully poetic depiction of a day in the life of Llareggub, a fictional seaside town. Commissioned as a radio play, it was to become his late, great work, his “Welsh Ulysses”.
It’s remarkable for the way Thomas made everyday imagery hum and sing: “the spittingcat kettles throb and hop on the range”, “the sea lolls, laps and idles in, with fishes sleeping in its lap”. Through his eccentric characters – from gossiping fishwives to bigamist bakers, blind old sea captains to tyrannically house-proud shrews – he also provided a splendidly rude, surreal and elegiac anatomy of small-town life. It struck a chord in Wales, where it has become a canonical text, much-loved and much-adapted. Since the BBC’s first recording with Richard Burton (whose rich tones helped to immortalise the famous opening passage “It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black”), UMW has been filmed, staged, sung, and illustrated. It remains a performance staple, and 2014 sees many a new version (see box, left).
However, National Theatre Wales is taking an especially fresh approach to this hallowed text… Raw Material: Llareggub Revisited is a weekend of site-specific performance around Laugharne in May. It riffs off Under Milk Wood rather than being a straight adaptation, and is as much about the town and its inhabitants as it is about Thomas’s play.
It has been created by theatre-maker Marc Rees and TV scriptwriter Jon Tregenna – who, perfectly, is also the manager of the local pub, Browns, an old haunt of Thomas. “Dylan would sit in the snug area and just absorb stories, and those characters provided the raw material for Under Milk Wood,” explains Rees when I meet the pair in Laugharne for a preview tour. “If Dylan was alive, he could still write Under Milk Wood, because such colourful characters still exist.” He explains that, in a year that risks being “over-saturated” with UMW celebrations, they’re trying to “put a new take on it” by making it about Laugharne, mixing the text of UMW with residents’ own stories.
So it’s been crucial for them to get the people of the town onside. Rees, who’s done several immersive shows for NTW, found collaborating with a proper “Laugharnie” such as Tregenna helpful. Aside from two professional actors – Russell Gomer and Charlie Dale – the cast is made up of The Laugharne Players, who have performed UMW almost every year since 1958. Local musicians will be dotted about the streets, and the WI will serve refreshments. Knitted figures of characters from UMW that a Laugharnie had been making for her own amusement will pop up around town. One of Browns’ regulars, Roy the Conc (he once worked in concrete), will be delivering his familiar bar-stool tales down by the estuary.
But to begin at the beginning: the audience will gather at The Tin Shed, Laugharne’s museum. Gomer, as Voyce (a reference to Thomas’s narrator Voice), will establish the premise: this is his alternative guide to Llaugharne, and to UMW. The crowd then follow maps round the town, taking in not only the tourist spots – the Boathouse where Thomas lived, the shed where he wrote, his grave in a pretty hillside cemetery – but also installations in ordinary shop windows, front rooms and barns, all hinting at and playing with characters from UMW.
So here, Rees explains as we pass Pelican House, where Thomas’s parents once lived, will be a Laugharne Player in character as sodden old sailor Captain Cat, by a wine rack full of bottles containing stories. Pick a number, and he’ll tell you one: though you’ll need keen ears to know whether it’s a tale from Llareggub or a yarn from Laugharne.
When we pass the window of the now-closed butcher’s, he explains how it will be filled with sausages made of condoms, giant flies and a knitted figure of Butcher Beynon from UMW. “The Laugharnies remember this butchers as more full of flies than sausages,” explains Rees. “And what’s really nice is this building belongs to Dougie, who plays Butcher Beynon with The Laugharne Players.” In real life, Dougie is a crime scene investigator in Carmarthen, so round the corner they have a body outlined on the ground – but of a dead cow…
“There are definite tie-ups to the play, but there’s also lots of stuff that relates to the world of [Laugharne],” explains Tregenna. “It’s like a weird detective story – all the clues are there.”
Not that audiences should worry too much about chasing references: it would be possible just to wander around enjoying the scenery. Following Raw Material’s planned route along the estuary, past the ruined castle and up into the graveyard, it’s easy to see why this place so inspired Thomas. We pause by his writing shed, and over the glassy estuary, the birds he loved flock and swoop. We even spy a heron, recalling his Laugharne-set “Poem in October”.
“There you are: talk about ‘the heron priested shore’, and there’s a fucking heron on the fucking shore!” Tregenna is that sort of Welsh publican: swears like a sailor, quotes Thomas like a dream…
Raw Material also benefits from a tie-in with BBC Cymru Wales. The Beeb invited a Welsh cast to simply read UWM to camera – and from Tom Jones to Michael Sheen, Sian Phillips to Charlotte Church, Matthew Rhys to Katherine Jenkins, “everyone wanted to have a go” explains Bethan Jones, executive producer. The programme airs the weekend that Raw Material is running, and while the celebrities have been pre-recorded, the producers will be filming excerpts from the show to insert, last-minute, providing the context and colour of Laugharne.
Meanwhile, Rees and Tregenna use the footage of Sir Tom et al in their show, screening it in sheds built on the bay. On the back of the sheds, “Llareggub” is spelt out in giant Hollywood-style letters, “so it’s a little bit of piss-taking,” says Rees with a twinkle.
Back at Browns, after encountering the regulars at the bar, I meet Annie Hardy, one of The Laugharne Players performing in Raw Material. So what do they make of this radically different version? “It’s lovely that people are taking a new interest in it – we can’t wait.” She’s also responsible for those knitted figures. As she shows me Rosie Probert, Llareggub’s prostitute complete with knitted bra and suspenders, Roy the Conc overhears, and leers over with a chuckle. “It’s a doll, love!” cries Rees, batting him away.
Hardy raises an eyebrow and smiles. “Laugharne IS Under Milk Wood: the characters are all here… It’s the best town anywhere, and it’s completely bonkers.”
‘Raw Material’ takes place in Laugharne, 3 to 5 May (nationaltheatrewales.org). ‘Under Milk Wood’ airs on BBC Wales Cymru, 5 May, and on iPlayerReuse content