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I've recently returned to work after a year-long absence and in the interim lost my free parking space. As a consequence I've been walking into work which isn't a huge distance but like most urban walks, lacks interest. To make a change from always listening to music on my journey, I decided to start listening to some audio books. I'm lucky in that my local library is well stocked with audio books so I've plenty to choose from.
Deciding that this would also give me an opportunity to improve my mind somewhat, I looked for more classical titles and one of the first I chose was this recording of Under Milk Wood, first broadcast in 1963 and which the BBC have re-mastered for the digital age.
Under Milk Wood is a radio play, written for broadcast on the BBC, by Dylan Thomas, one of Wales's most famous sons. It details the minutiae of a day in the life of Llareggub,a small Welsh fishing village, reputedly based on Laugharne where for many years Thomas lived with his wife Caitlin. Llareggub, read backwards demonstrates Thomas's opinion of what there is to do in a small Welsh town!
Dylan Thomas was a gifted writer publishing several volumes of poetry as well as undertaking speaking tours to take his writings to a wider audience, especially in America where the first ever performance of Under Milk Wood was given. Although it's obvious from his writing that Dylan Thomas had an exceptional love of the English language, sadly, he loved alcohol more and not only did his alcoholism restrict his writing output, it also contributed to his eventual death. This play is possibly the work for which he is best remembered.
I borrowed this from the library but this version of the play is on sale at Amazon for £7.48 and I'm seriously considering buying my own copy because I know I'll want to listen to this again.
What is it about Welsh voices? And male Welsh voices in particular. They seem to have a depth and resonance unlike any other and, of course, Richard Burton has one of the most beautiful and distinctive voices of any actor living or dead. Burton is the narrator, filling in all the little details to further enhance the images being conjured by Thomas's characters.
The play begins with the narrator setting the scene of Llareggub at night. In the most descriptive language, delivered in the wonderfully resonant tones of Richard Burton, these words must surely be some of the most beautiful English ever written or spoken, and they paint the picture of the little fishing village so vividly that you can't fail but see in your mind's eye that "sloe black, slow black, crowblack fishing boat bobbing sea".
The narrator invites the listener into the houses, the bedrooms and even into the dreams of the residents of the sleeping town of Llareggub, and like an eavesdropper we listen in to the dreaming conversations, sometimes detailed and sometimes just snippets, all of which build a picture of a town whose residents are mutually dependent upon each other and all with their own memories, hopes, dreams and aspirations.
After the night, we hear the residents going about their daily lives, dipping in and out of their conversations and innermost thoughts.
The names of many of the characters are very typically Welsh. There's Evans the Death, Organ Morgan and Dai Bread, whose occupations are all self-explanatory and the play's characters range from the humorous and brash to the poignant and pathetic. All aspects of human life are resident in Llareggub and the play follows the residents throughout that first night, the morning, the afternoon and then again into the following night.
I've already mentioned Richard Burton who was in the original radio play broadcast in 1954 and he reprises his role as narrator in this version. He is, undoubtedly, the star of this play and he gives Dylan Thomas's words a musicality that, I'm sure, no other actor could. I understand that in the original radio play, Burton shared the narration with another actor but, as I could listen to him speak all day, I can't say that lessened the impact of the play for me.
Other cast members include Hugh Griffith as Captain Cat, another of the original cast members, Talfryn Thomas and Margo Jenkins as Polly Garter as well as other notable Welsh actors such as Mervyn Johns and Gwyneth Petty. This play has many voices, too many to mention every one.
Captain Cat is one of the lead voices and one filled with pathos. He is the blind, retired sea captain, visited at night by dreams of long dead sailors and during the day he listens to the world of Llareggub go by.
Polly Garter, too, is a rather pathetic character. She is the mother of several children all from different fathers and is regarded as loose by the more respectable women of Llareggub, but however many men she goes with, she dreams always of her dead lover, Willie Wee, still the love of her life.
'Me, Polly Garter, under the washing line, giving the breast in the garden to my bonny new baby. Nothing grows in our garden, only washing. And babies.'
I enjoyed listening to Mr and Mrs Pugh the best. Theirs is a loveless marriage, to say the least, and Mr Pugh spends much time planning how he'll poison his wife. She, of course, is blissfully unaware that this seemingly meak and henpecked husband is planning a horrible end for her.
With this play Dylan Thomas describes what can really only be called the mundane acts of everyday life but couched in such a beautiful way that it's impossible not to be moved. This play is populated with people from Dylan Thomas's imagination who through the course of the play become real to the listener.
There are no disadvantages to this recording. Although I understand that the 1954 recording is considered the definitive version, I found nothing to criticise here. The only problem I had was finding a suitable place to end my listening when I arrived at work.
My own English language abilities are simply not good enough to give this play or Dylan Thomas their due. The Reverend Eli Jenkins says "Praise the lord, we are a musical nation" and never was a truer word said because with this play Dylan Thomas has composed the music of the spoken word.
The 1963 radio dramatization, with Richard Burton as the narrator, of Dylan Thomas's "play for voices", about the inhabitants of a small Welsh village.