Under the shadow of Milk Wood

For the first time ever, the National Theatre is staging a Welsh play. And it's that radio work the Welsh love to hate. By Jasper Rees
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The Independent Culture
Away from the Arms Park, Wales scores precious few victories over England. Even when a novel about Wales won the Booker Prize - Kingsley Amis's The Old Devils - it was the work of an Englishman. But a bigger victory beckons tonight, when an all-Welsh cast directed by Roger Michell opens in Under Milk Wood at the Olivier.

There are doubtless scores of Welsh-language writers who would dispute it, but the widespread perception is that, even if by default, Under Milk Wood has become the Welsh national play. Michell, whose idea it was to stage the play after the death of Thomas's widow Caitlin last year, is the first to admit that, "It's really unfair on Welsh writers working in Welsh who see this play being constantly revived as the Welsh masterpiece". Whether it should be a radio-turned-stage play in sing-song Anglo-Welsh that Wales submits to the country's premier stage is a matter for debate. But that this is the first Welsh play to reach the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain is an eloquent summary of a troubled relationship between Welsh culture and its big brother, a relationship characterised, on the one side, by grouchy submission and, on the other, by haughty disdain.

It is quite legitimate to contend that anti-Welsh racism is the last tolerated form of racial bigotry in these isles. The popular demonisation of Neil Kinnock as a "Welsh windbag" would be impermissible were he Jewish or black, but is pardonable because England passes off the principality as a region rather than a nation. But then, historically, the blows suffered by Wales are partly self-inflicted. "Apart from the militant faction," says the Welsh director Michael Bogdanov, "the majority of the Welsh have been content to feel second-rate and put upon. It's only since the formation of S4C that there's been a sense that maybe Wales has something special and isn't any longer to be dominated by England."

Now Under Milk Wood comes to the National at a time of cultural assertiveness. One side-effect of this growth is the retreat from inter-lingual factionalism which, 15 or even five years ago, would have turned a Welsh cast assembled to work in England into pariahs, rather like the central character in The Old Devils, who is derided for commenting on Welsh affairs from the comfort of the capital.

And yet factionalism still exists. Even now, Rhys Ifans, an outspoken London-based actor from Clwyd who plays Second Voice, says "here I can express myself as an artist first and then as a Welshman, whereas at home you are expected to express yourself as a Welshman first and then as an artist." Bogdanov agrees that "Wales hasn't grown up sufficiently yet to have cast off its small-town mentality". He recently called for the creation of some form of Welsh National Theatre. "I listed about 15 writers that England hadn't really heard of, and two other writers rang me up and wanted to know why they weren't on the list. I said, `For Christ's sake, can't you celebrate the fact that the debate is moving on to another level?' " And there is still enough potential for in-fighting for the supervision of an English director to have had an emollient effect. "If we'd worked with a Welsh director," says Ifans, "we'd be arguing the whole time, and the thing could have disappeared up its own arse."

Dylan Thomas performed in a version of his "play for voices" at the most unCeltic-sounding of venues, the Kaufmann Auditorium of the Young Men's Hebrew Association in New York, on 14 May 1953. The BBC, who originally commissioned it, broadcast the completed version, starring Richard Burton, on 25 January 1954, two months after the author's death.

Thomas's idea was to "write a piece, a play, an impression for voices, an entertainment out of the darkness of the town I live in, and to write it simply and warmly and comically with lots of movement and varieties of moods, so that, at many levels, through sight and speech, description and dialogue, evocation and parody, you come to know the town as an inhabitant of it."

Consistent with Ifans's claim that "in Wales you only have to fart to start a debate", there is some disagreement about what sort of Welshness is portrayed in the seaside villagers of Llareggub - the spick-and-span widow Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard, the parochial historian Rev Eli Jenkins and the bibulous tenors in the Sailors Arms. "I've never been a great admirer," says the writer Jan Morris, "because it seems to me such a caricature of a play. It reinforces Welsh stereotypes. I don't think it's helped the image of Wales, not that it was Thomas's intention of course." Ifans reckons that "Dylan wrote the play as a parody of Welshness", while Bogdanov regards it as "a wonderful picture of a certain kind of Welshness; it's a very funny, humane view of a small Welsh village, and it's applicable to any such community throughout the world."

The other view, as expressed by Michell, is that Under Milk Wood offers "the Wales that English people like: it's not the Wales of chronic unemployment and urban deprivation and coal mines closing left, right and centre. It's the Wales of memory, of Thomas's memory. There is a danger that it turns into the Welsh diddy folk, but we've tried to base it on some kind of truth about human beings, as opposed to funny voices in the dark. I was astonished to re-read it and find how full of sex and longing it is. It is incredibly libidinous. That old clash between chapel and genital is very much part of the play."

One Welsh stereotype that is certainly undermined by Ifans is the submissive Taff who's content to be mediocre. "When I walk out on to that National stage," he says, "I feel like I'm here to kick arse. I'm not giving it the dulcet tones, I'm not coming here with a tinful of bara brith and lava bread. The beauty of this production is it doesn't dwell on the sentimental vision that the English have of Wales."

For Bogdanov, though, this production is a case of right place, wrong play. "It just makes me sad that what in fact is a radio play is the only thing that is being represented as Welsh culture. For an English audience it does reinforce stereotypes, but that's not the fault of the piece, it's the fault of attitudes that still exist in England. That's why it's a shame that the National hasn't tried to work with any of the new breed of young Welsh writers who are beginning to storm the citadel in Wales."

Whatever happens, it's to be hoped that the show gets a better reception than the cast did when, in a Waterloo hostelry, they broke into a choral song from the production. Whether driven by racist sentiment or not, the publican threw them out.

n `Under Milk Wood' is in repertory at the Royal National Theatre, London SE1 (Box-office: 0171-928 2252)