This timely, beautiful barmy town… a legendary lazy little black bedlam by the sea.
I’m a stranger in this place. I’m here too early and I’m hiding in my car reading Rebecca Solnit describing the wonder of seeing a place reveal itself from over the crest of a hill and thinking to yourself ‘I have never seen any of this before’. I’m thinking about being lost. My phone has no reception down here. I’m sitting in the front seat of my car in a church car
park in the fishing town of Laugharne – ‘Dylan Thomas Country’ I’ve been told. I am here to see a ‘re-imagining of Under Milk Wood’, Thomas’ play for voices, which was at least in part written here. I am worrying if my footwear is suitable for the conditions, a pair of worn red trainers worn very much against the advice provided in advance by National Theatre Wales. I am worrying about the fact that I have never read Under Milk Wood. I am a stranger in a strange place.
According to Dylan Thomas, no stranger to strangeness himself, Laugharne is the strangest town in Wales. He lived here but died in New York, drinking himself to death in a bar in Greenwich Village at the age of 39. I have been to that bar but I have never been here before. The town is quiet. Thomas feels lost to me as anything but myth –he bleeds into his legacy or perhaps his legacy bleeds into him – rock and roll icons, literary festivals, a ‘light hearted Radio 4 quiz’ to commemorate this the centenary of his birth. He was not the best Welsh poet of his generation, someone tells me as we walk through the village, but America took to him and he became a literary phenomenon nonetheless. I have always associated Thomas with America – a great raging figure, ungentle, an Author; a writer become larger than his words, or larger than life maybe, a life too briefly able to contain him. He was on a speaking tour when he died, busy playing the famous Author, but as were his wishes they brought his body back to Laugharne.
Now I’m two paragraphs in and I haven’t mentioned the show yet, but it’s that kind of show. Unshowy, constantly drawing your eye away from itself and towards the things that surround it – the people, the village, the sea, the sky, the past. The creation of Marc Rees, one of the most compellingly original and beautifully strange artists currently working in the UK, and the Laugharne writer John Tregenna, the show is largely made up of a delicate scattering of installations and microperformances that pepper the village like the traces of old footprints – fragile glimpses, half-formed moments, a suggestion of movement in the landscape, a memory of the people and the stories that belong to this place.
We wander freely, following a tourist map of the town that has been appropriated and scribbled over by a character called Voyce, a bearded wax-jacketed echo of the wild, poetic voice that flows through Under Milk Wood. Hung around Voyce’s neck is a chain wrist-thick with silver keys – he can unlock every door in Laugharne. He can take us inside, under the skin, beyond the neatly framed postcard frontages and the carefully arranged diorama of Dylan Thomas’ writing shed. Distracting our official guide with the prospect of an illicit sexual encounter, Voyce sends us off to discover his Laugharne, Thomas’ Laugharne – a place of quiet, unassuming strangeness; a gentle, seaside wilderness.
The installations we encounter are Voyce’s installations, he tells us he made them all and like him they are by turns feral, disorientating, hilarious and so fragile as to be almost unnoticeable. They do not pretend to be of the village nor do they try to overpower it. They are made up of mirrors and gaps. They either reflect the landscape or leave enough room for it to emerge in the spaces between them. A graveyard of mirrored headstones reflecting the soft grey-white sky looks across the valley to the small cemetery where Thomas himself is buried by a simple white wooden cross. On one corner of the green A suped-up yellow hatchback is parked with its doors wide open like a teenager splayed awkwardly across a sofa. Voyce’s voice booms like a radio play from its sound system, stopping occasionally, just long enough to allow the young girls in the playground on the other side of the park to sing their own song back at it, back at him. A play of voices. The show slipping into and through Laugharne, or Laugharne slipping into and through the show.
Our walking draws us further into both, inviting us to look at this place as Thomas looked at it – with love and curiosity.I can feel him, I can smell his warm boozy breath on the back of my neck as I stare across a field at a ghost float of sorry-looking papier mache birds, or listen to the dueting howls of Bob Dylan’s Shelter From the Storm and an industrial fan billowing a small sail in an old brown barn.
He wrote the play for them, someone tells me, for them. For Laugharne. Not about them. Not a tourist postcard but a song of ourselves. And this show is also their show, in ways that were anticipated and others that weren’t. At the end we follow a funeral procession down the high street and back to the rickety tin-roofed museum where we started – a reminder that this is a sad story, or a reminder perhaps that death is not always a sad ending. They sing. We clap. We eat freshly baked bread and cockles from the jar. I return to my car, preparing to leave not Dylan Thomas Country, but maybe Dylan Thomas’ country, still a stranger in this place and perhaps even slightly stranger still for having some fragment of its strangeness now gloriously lost inside me.