Dylan Thomas: Return Journey

Raffertys Theatre, August 13

Dylan res
Bob Kingdom as Dylan Thomas. Photo: Mark Newsham.

Bob Kingdom’s one man show about one of the greatest poets since Shakespeare never directly addresses the reasons for the self-destructiveness that saw Dylan Thomas dead at 39. But Kingdom’s text is largely drawn from the man’s writings, and for Thomas to analyse in prose or verse why he soused himself was probably to waste valuable drinking time.

The answer, nonetheless, glints obliquely through the stories, letters and poems. Here was a spirit who experienced beauty so acutely that it hurt, as, in different ways, did ugliness, mediocrity and dissatisfaction with his own work.

The play’s very compactness – it is delivered at a lectern, as if on a speaking tour – has a peculiar charm. Kingdom, a Welsh actor who first presented this piece in 1985 and has had some directorial input from Anthony Hopkins, looks alarmingly like an older version of Thomas – and Thomas always looked older than he was, anyway. Kingdom also sounds like him, delivering the poetry in a chapel-toned voice that lingers to chew an especially relished word. Even when he appears to lose his place in the wordy 80 minutes you’re not sure it wasn’t Thomas doing the stumbling.

Humour spills from the show like flesh bursting from an ill-fitting suit. Try “I fell among thieves and ulterior decorators”, or “Wales is dead from the eisteddfod up”. The show’s longest and funniest story is a reminiscence from childhood about witnessing a bus-trip pub-crawl of epic scale, where Thomas’s uncle is described as being as big as a buffalo and “breathing like a brass band”. Yet however much the humour quivers and wobbles, the abiding impression is of the sadness enshrouding Thomas’s life and work.

Under Milk Wood rates no mention, Kingdom choosing to illuminate what we may not know rather than what we probably do. The poems, including Poem in October, Lament and Fern Hill, leave one wishing Thomas’s projected opera collaboration with Stravinsky had occurred. But as he says, “Isn’t life awful?”