Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas

251504Under Milk Wood, my latest classic club spin, is a play originally written for the BBC in 1954.  Set in a fictional welsh village, two narrators set the scene and then lead us through the dreams and lives of its inhabitants including a captain who lost his crew at sea, a widow, and a couple in love who dream of each other.

“It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishing boat bobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine to-night in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows’ weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping now.”

Starting out, I found all this a little confusing because, whilst a play it reads more like a poem and I had to get into the rhythm. Eventually I did – and then went back to the beginning so I could really understand what I was reading.

Given Dylan Thomas’ style of writing, it all still took a while because I found I couldn’t rush or skim a line without losing where I was in the plot entirely.  I knew this about Dylan having read some of his poems but this felt especially difficult to keep track of. I did, though, like the language and the images it created in my mind, even if I didn’t always know what was happening or to whom.  There was something slightly hypnotic in reading it, a feeling of floating along as if in a dream myself.

“Listen. It is night moving in the streets, the processional salt slow musical wind in Coronation Street and Cockle Row, it is the grass growing on Llaregyb Hill, dewfall, starfall, the sleep of birds in Milk Wood.”

Throughout, there are also some funny moments and some sad ones.  I found myself sympathising with many of the characters and the way they lived their lives, having seen their dreams and what went on inside their heads.

Given it’s a radio play, this is a short read (I can’t say easy given my previous comments) and I did enjoy it.  I then went and listened to the Richard Burton version and enjoyed it more.  It definitely is something to be spoken vs. read and I would recommend to anyone wanted to read this to maybe go down that route.  Read it aloud or listen to someone else doing it – and enjoy getting lost in the language.

Emma

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The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie

For the last month of the Play On! Challenge, you could pick any play you wanted, I decided on The Mousetrap because it’s the longest running play in the West End and I wanted to read why. Plus, I hoped it wouldn’t be too serious – something that couldn’t be said about last month’s choice of Uncle Vanya. I got exactly what I wanted, which was great.

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The play opens with a young couple nervous about receiving their first visitors at their new guesthouse. They have no real idea what they are doing and seem to have missed many of the formalities, like asking for references. Their guests are four strangers, five if you include the mystery man who arrives in the middle of the snow storm that eventually leaves them housebound. At the same time, the radio is reporting on a murder in London. A woman has been strangled.

The setting and story are very much what I expect when I think of Agatha Christie. A country house, a mix of characters – all with something to hide, a murder anyone could have committed and lots of red herrings. It was very “Colonel Mustard in the Library with a lead pipe” and I loved it. Plus there’s the twist in the tale you know is coming and are scratching your head trying to figure out (audience members are asked not to share this and I won’t either, all I’ll say is I didn’t figure out who was guilty).

The Mousetrap is fast paced, with lots of people coming and going, meaning you don’t know if they really going to the kitchen or up to something else, and easy to read. It didn’t take a lot of brainpower to read and I hadn’t expected that. I had expected to be entertained and I was. Really enjoyed it.

Emma

Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov

For March, the Play On! challenge was post-renaissance plays.  The guidance said anything post-renaissance is allowed and Wilde and Shaw are welcome…which meant they were the first playwrights I thought of and looked at.  I’ve read both though, and love Oscar Wilde, so – as part of the point of my taking part in this challenge was to challenge myself – decided I needed to look further afield.

The further ended up being Russia and I picked Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov, which I knew nothing about (a seeming habit with me for picking books). I have, however, read some of his short stories and know a little about the period in Russian history the play was written and set in (1897). Because of this, I think I expected something a little more political but, whilst there were some references to the industrialisation that was taking place at the time, this play is much more about the internal – human nature in general and love in particular.

Set on a poor rural estate, the story focuses on the upset a visit from an elderly professor and his much younger wife (Yelena/Helena) causes Uncle Vanya, his mother, his niece – who is also the professor’s daughter by his first marriage – Sonya, and the local doctor, Astrov.

The professor has been living in the city for many years, with the estate funding his extravagant lifestyle, and (now) that of his new wife.  In the city, the professor is a man about town, an intellectual, well known and well respected.  At least that is what Uncle Vanya, his mother, and Sonya thought until the ill old man turned up at their door, upsetting their routines and causing chaos with his demands and health complaints.

It is then they realise they have built a picture of him that is nowhere near reality and that their sacrifices and years of living close to the poverty line have all been for nothing; the professor’s behaviour suggests he knows as much too. It doesn’t help that both Uncle Vanya and Astrov have fallen for the beautiful young wife, or that she has realised she was more in love with the idea of the professor than she is with the man himself. It all comes to a head when the professor, himself unhappy with rural life, announces that the best thing to do is to sell the estate so he can afford to move back to the city.

In parts, the play feels like it is going to turn into a farce, with drunken characters going in an out of rooms and misunderstandings when people walk in on each other when they shouldn’t and there are some moments of dark humour.  These moments are few and far between though and, for me, despite the fact I had read it was a tragi-comedy, the play was pure tragedy.

Everyone goes through their days in a general malaise, picking at each other and unpicking every mistake they feel they have made with their lives.  The characters complain – a lot – but do nothing to help themselves. No one is satisfied with what they have, what they have achieved; and they all seem to really dislike each other.

In the end, I disliked them all too and, as a result, I disliked the play.  My initial sympathy for Uncle Vanya and Sonya disappeared quickly and the ending left me just plain old depressed, maybe a little bit frustrated too. For all that happened, nothing happened.  As a play, it wasn’t that long but I found it a struggle to stick with it.  As a story, I just couldn’t engage with it because I had no sympathy for any of the characters.  All in all then, not for me I’m afraid!  Have you read it – what were your thoughts?

Emma

The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare

For this months Play On! Challenge, I decided to read The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare.  The theme for the month was Renaissance Plays, including Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and I had planned on being more adventurous than Shakespeare.  I couldn’t seem to make a decision though, so went with the obvious choice but, hopefully, not one of his most obvious plays, The Merry Wives of Windsor.

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Sir John Falstaff, a rather dodgy character, decides to seduce a number of wealthy women in Windsor and make his fortune. He writes them identical letters but doesn’t know the women are friends and discover his plan. They come up with a plan of their own to teach him a lesson.  At the same one of their husbands learns of Falstaff’s plan and tries to catch the two of them together. Meanwhile, the much younger Anne is being pursued by three men but loves another.  There is duel and Falstaff is involved in this too.

At least, I think that’s what happens. This is Shakespeare’s first play and I actually found it much more difficult to read than I thought it would be, especially as last year I read eight of his plays in as many weeks and thought I had gotten into the grove of reading them. Even my normal trick of reading out loud didn’t help me much.

The Merry Wives of Windsor is a bawdy comedy with lots of jokes which were probably very funny at the time but went right over my head.  It is the only one of his plays to be set in middle class England and this was part of where I struggled at times. There lots of colloquialisms and references I didn’t understand so I found I spent more time looking things up on the Internet than reading.  

After much frustration, I ended up watching an RSC production…and felt much, much, better.  It all made sense and I found it quite funny.  I even managed to finish the play second time around.  Did I enjoy it? Not really but at least I understood what was going on! 

Emma

The Suppliant Maidens by Aeschylus

I read The Suppliant Maidens as part of the Play On! challenge, picking it because Aeschylus is described as “the father of tragedy” and I thought I had more chance of understanding an ancient tragedy as opposed to an ancient comedy.  I haven’t read any comedy to compare this tragedy to (yet) – this is my foray into Ancient Greece but as far as understanding goes I had no problems with the plot and few with the language.

The man himself...
The man himself…

The play is the first of three that tell the story of the 50 daughters of Danus who flee Egypt and forced marriages to their cousins. They seek refuge in Argos, Greece, claiming to be descendants of Zeus and the Argians (?) promise to protect them, even when a Herald from their cousins comes to take them away, by force if need be.

As with all good trilogies, this is where the pay ends – on a cliffhanger. Unfortunately, it’s one I’ll never get to know the middle or end of as the remaining two plays are lost (there are scholarly reconstructions online of what might of happened but who knows if they are right?).

Although a play, because of the structure and length, I found I treated it much more as a play and ended up reading it out loud. I think this helped my understanding and enjoyment. At the of the day, this is a fairly classic story and it was easy to get drawn in and worry about whether the maidens would be safe.

The maidens make up the Chorus in what I have since discovered is the standard format for Greek plays; the other characters are Danus, King Argos and the Herald. The maidens fate is not a happy one, especially given the threats of the Herald (“Or e’er from hands of mine, Ye suffer torments worse and blow on blow) and I was left hoping King Argos would keep his word and protect them. This being a tragedy, I don’t hold out much hope.

When I started this play – even before I’d picked it up – I was nervous about reading it. I worried it would be hard going or hard to understand. It was neither, the opposite in fact (although I know I will have missed things, I read that this was a political statement for example on Greek widows being forced to marry their brother-in-laws). I’m now disappointed the remainder of this trilogy is lost but know I will be reading more Greek tragedies in the future…this was a great “taster” to a previously unknown world.

Emma

Play On!

Last year, I did an short course on Shakespeare and his world, reading 8 of his plays in an effort to understand how they reflected the times in which he lived and what was happening in his own life as well. I really enjoyed it. I loved reading Shakespeare at college but hadn’t read any since. In fact, I rarely read plays. After the course, I planned to read more – not just Shakespeare. I have failed miserably. So, to get me going on play reading again, I’m taking part in the Play On! challenge from Half Filled Attic.

Play-Challenge

It is pretty simple as far as challenges go, read a play and post a review each month for the next four months, the first three of which are themed:

January: Ancient Plays, including Greek and Roman plays
February: Renaissance Plays, including Shakespeare and his contemporaries
March: Post-Renaissance Plays, anything post Renaissance is allowed. Wilde and Shaw are very welcome
April: Freebie Plays, if you find any particular playwright interesting during the 3 months, feel free to read another of his/her plays. Or if you want to experiment with other genre or other playwright, you are in.

I’m quite excited about January as I haven’t really read anything “ancient”. I’ve picked Aeschylus (c.525 – 465 BC) who, according to Wikipedia is “the first of the three ancient Greek tragedians whose plays can still be read or performed [and] is often described as the father of tragedy”. I’m going to start with The Suppliants, which tells the story of the fifty daughters of Danaus who must flee to escape enforced marriages, and see how it goes. Has anyone out there read this or other Greek plays – have I picked well? Here’s hoping!

Emma x