Adventures in the Skin Trade at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff
Directed by Kevin Lewis
Adapted from the Dylan Thomas book by Lucy Gough
Starring: Oliver Wood, Ceri Ashe, Matthew Bulgo, Ceri Elen, Jenny Livsey and Richard Nichols
There is something about Dylan Thomas’ half-written half-hearted attempt at a novel, Adventures in the Skin Trade that simultaneously suggests it as unadaptable to performance and too comically tempting to any scriptwriter who might come across it to leave it alone. In the novel there is something inherently dramatic, propulsive, alluringly comical. It is in the way the characters move about each other, the borderline-absurdist scenarios, part dreamscape, part poetic whimsy, part hero’s journey, part coming-of-age tale. But there is something throughout the novel that is tantalisingly just out of reach. There is something very ‘first draft’ about it. It is almost so many things. Had it been finished, polished and taken seriously by its author, it could well have been his masterpiece and Thomas would be remembered as much for his comic prose as his towering verse.
For those looking to adapt, then, such a work is fraught with danger. Thomas has the spotlight this year, and an adaptation that does not at least replicate his spirit could come in for some real flak from some serious quarters. There is so much space in the novel, that an adapter could wander off in directions from which they never find their way back. Well, fortune, fate or shrewdness – (probably shrewdness seeing it’s Kevin Lewis at the helm) – brought Lucy Gough back to Theatr Iolo for the first collaboration between the writer and company in many years. Gough’s finest work to date is her BBC Radio Four adaptation of Wuthering Heights, a novel that has often proved deceptively difficult to realise visually, but Gough searched and found an oral pressure point in it. In Wuthering Heights her master-stroke was to make the house itself a moving talking character. Here, in this riotously and kinetically imaginative Adventures in the Skin Trade she again finds the key to releasing the text from its own inherent ‘literariness’ and that is to treat the text as a swirling Greek chorus, and the dialogue as high end Ealing comedy. Dylan Thomas himself, without doubt, would have enjoyed this production immensely.
Kevin Lewis as well, always an energetic and fascinating presence in the director’s chair, goes full pelt for the child-like ‘play’ of the scenes. Lewis, it is safe to assume, directs always with one eye on his childhood games, and here the set is like a kid’s den. In the scene taken from ‘Plenty of Furniture’ characters climb and duck and dive and weave, the make-believe is joyously believable, and, perhaps most importantly in this anniversary year, everything seems to exude absolutely the spirit of Thomas’ chortling, naughty, mischievous side. The tone is somewhere between Meet Mr Lucifer and Yellow Submarine. Sam Bennet, the main character, the fish out of water, the Welsh boy in the Big Smoke of London 1933, seems to step into cartoonish parades, and is swept along, becomes cartoon too, and then pokes his head above water for air at intervals. Amidst the great lines, the poetry and the comedy, the cast fully realise the necessity to have fun in their roles. Oliver Wood as Bennet, the boy with the bottle on his finger, is superb in the centre of it all, equally knowing and naïve. There is something distinctly Beckettian about his experiences, and had the Irish genius (who admired Thomas’ poetry greatly) thought to adapt the Welsh genius, he may very well have done it something like this. But there is perhaps something of Beckett in Bennet, too. Thomas wrote of Beckett’s Murphy, the central eponymous character in the first of Beckett’s novel trilogy masterpiece, that Murphy is ‘a complex and oddly tragic figure who cannot reconcile the unreality of the seen world with the reality of the unseen […] (his) successors, Watt, Molloy, Moran, Malone share his unassimilability but not his bliss.’ This, it seems, is an exact description of the Bennet that Wood presents us, the one that Gough writes, and Lewis frames in glorious absurdist monochrome.
Richard Nichols and Matthew Bulgo bring with them in portrayals of Allingham and George a kind of post-Dickensian London mass – they are characters both highly individual and curiously of familiar stock. Eccentrics. It is all part of the big city circus. Moving between Greek chorus and the female characters, Ceri Ashe, Ceri Elen and Jenny Livsey press the whole thing together. It is a marvellous, invigorating ensemble.
Theatre Iolo’s Adventures in the Skin Trade continues its tour around Wales until the end of the month, and so far is the absolute highlight of the Dylan Thomas anniversary. With all of the rigmarole and politicking around the dylanwad, all of the nonsense and tubthumping, it is good to see that the good old fashioned creative energy of Theatr Iolo can bring us all back to where we should be: in the lap of the magnificent spirit of the poet.
© Image courtesy of Farrows Creative