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Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Do Not Go Gentle: Purgatory for Thomas, Paradise for Audience

Do Not Go Gentle
By Leon Pownall
As directed by Leon Pownall; realized by Dean Gabourie
Starring Geraint Wyn Davies

The story: Dylan Thomas reflects on his life and career from a nebulous purgatory that resembles his own writing den.

A quotation from Leon Powell’s play reads, “If you are a bad poet, learn to act. If you are a bad actor, better to become a poet.”

So what happens when you have a very good actor portraying a very good poet in a well-crafted play?

Something approaching brilliance.

That the writer, actor and subject share the same nationality surely helps plumb the depths of Thomas’ psyche. That Mr. Davies has performed this role several times in recent years – of late in New York City – also adds to this depth. Mr. Gabourie's realization is a very symmetrical production, gently lit with both warmth and cold by Louise Guinand - Stratford audiences reap the benefit of all.

Mr. Davies makes his entrance in the dark, to the gentle air of “All Through the Night”, a Welsh lullaby. Stooping to pick up his own scattered pages of writing, he looks at each one, and begins to recite Thomas’ “In My Craft or Sullen Art”, Mr. Davies’ own lilting accent harmonizes with Thomas’ lyric poetry. He then addresses the audience and pours himself a Very. Large. Whisky. Which he does not drink.

“I am Dylan Thomas,” he says, somewhat unnecessarily. But not to him. “The poet?” he persists, revealing the first crack in the poet’s façade, that of an inferiority complex, the need to be recognized as a writer of distinction.

As the performance continues, in which he does not drink, Mr. Davies brings us back through the themes in Dylan’s writing, and in his life. He beams when describing childhood and reciting from “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, a projection of softly falling snow behind him. But he drifts into sadness: “It’s why we hold childhood close – to feel warm and cozy outside the womb.” Another story about childhood, about his grandfather and his best waist coat, but this one is darker, bringing us close to Thomas’ other major literary theme – death.

And with that, Mr. Davies downs the entire Very Large Whisky, and transforms. This Dylan Thomas that is just as eloquent, but more loutish, delving into some of his sexual escapades and infidelities, his conscience being interrupted by thoughts of his wife Caitlin. And now that he is off the wagon, down goes another Very Large Whisky, and the anger boils to the surface.

Dylan Thomas in life was never fully accepted by the English Literati, and Mr. Davies’ explosion of rage toward these academics would make the toughest shrink in his seat. This, the numerous times he hurt Caitlin, plus the need to live up to of all people, Shakespeare (“That son of a bitch, he wrote it all!”), is what keeps Thomas in purgatory. His answer to Shakespeare, recited in a weakening voice:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And then the cleverest inauguration of an intermission, followed by Mr. Davies reappearance wearing an Elizabethan ruff – except it looks more like a very small tutu – and some quick pieces of Shakespeare’s best known soliloquies. This is followed quickly by another Very Large Whisky after which Mr. Davies stumbles Dylan Thomas over to his desk chair, sits heavily, and proceeds to give the story of King Lear, sprinkled with recitations from the play. They are Very Good Recitations. In fact, Mr. Davies’ is so good as Lear that one entirely forgets that he is still wearing a very small tutu around his neck, and that is impressive.

There is more drunken railing about the “matrons of America” and how they loved him, but that in order to write, he had to be alone – something Caitlin never understood. “Inspiration, creativity and me – a poet’s ménage a trios!” he exclaims, as his voice weakens again and he begins to shake. Uncontrollably. The bottle is empty, however. “They loved me in America,” he chokes. “Loved me to death.”

Once re-centred, Mr. Davies takes a moment to let Thomas apologize to his Caitlin, and the audience senses the end is near – both the play and Thomas’ purgatory are ending. Although Dylan Thomas finds redemption in the words he wrote, he will find immortality that outlasts his infamy in his compatriots’ play and performance.

The play ends as it begins – a rumpled, sober Thomas, picking up and examining his work, the chair and stool knocked over once again, the strains of “All through the Night” playing, and with the words, “In my craft or sullen art…”

Do Not Go Gentle is in repertory at the Studio Theatre; the run is nearly sold out, even with extra shows added.

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