Caitlin’s aim is to provide Caitlin Thomas’s perspective on her marriage to Dylan Thomas. Notably, his name is absent from the programme notes, as this piece folds itself around its eponymous protagonist. For Caitlin to step out of her husband’s shadow, he needs to be cut down to the size of a storybook character incapable of casting shadow. Caitlin realises this ambition superlatively, and though its pitch can sometimes lack nuance, it has a centre of absolute conviction.
Caitlin Thomas began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in 1973, some twenty years after Dylan died from pneumonia complicated by an alcoholic ‘insult to the brain’, and the performance is framed as an AA meeting. In an airy, brightly lit, crumbling room filled with expectant strangers, a woman in red addresses the audience sat in a circle of chairs. “Hello,” she says. “My name is Caitlin and I’m an alcoholic. My husband was a very famous poet, and I was going to be a very famous dancer.”
Across the room, a man in a tweed jacket replies, “Hello, Caitlin,” with a haunted familiarity. The set-up is so obvious, so restrictively scripted, that Caitlin’s direction has only one recourse: dispense with it entirely. The man – Dylan Thomas – flings himself across the space of the circle and drops his head into Cailtin’s lap. The illusion is disrupted, and with it the predicted trajectory of the scene. This disruption is typical of Caitlin’s narrative direction. The chronology is deliberately vague and particular incidences of Caitlin’s story are outlined in one or two sentences – an infidelity, a trip to America, a lifetime of alcoholism – and then expanded in set pieces of dance, led by mood rather than plot. The framework is literally dismantled over the course of the piece; the chairs of the AA meeting are imaginatively used as props at various levels of metaphorical figuration, becoming cages, beds, images of burdens and weapons as needed. One of the most memorable uses sees Gwyn Emberton’s Dylan Thomas sat on the top of a tower of four chairs, while Eddie Ladd’s Caitlin hunkers down under the weight of four folded chairs – it is a startling representation of the inequality of the marriage, and Dylan Thomas’s dominance in popular imagination.
Ladd’s expressive, nuanced portrayal of Caitlin is a highlight, making Emberton’s Dylan Thomas look (intentionally) like a man-cipher. In Caitlin’s story he is first and foremost a husband – related to and remembered in a complex fog of jealousy, rivalry, lust and love, but nevertheless a Thomas stripped wordless. Her reckoning is poignant but surprisingly funny. When Ladd repeats, as she often does, “My husband was a very famous poet,” Emberton stands on a chair with his hands jammed in his pockets, goldfish-mouthing into the middle distance at an invisible audience, far over the heads of the actual audience. Fittingly, none of Emberton’s dancing draws on the heady lyricism of Thomas’s writing. He moves broadly and bluntly, channelling something dogged and animal.
Caitlin’s choreographic style has that same sense of nebulous explication that characterises its treatment of narrative, with forceful dancing expanding from simple, single movements designed to represent the mood of the particular scene. The better duets were full of delicate balancing acts committed with gruff, loose-limbed certitude. One of the finest sections begins with Emberton and Ladd lying on their backs on the floor. Emberton lays the lay of his head on Ladd’s forehead; she delicately replaces it each time it slips off. This opens into a rough, energetic duet that sees Emberton and Ladd throwing their bodies against one another, pressing foreheads, climbing roughly over shoulders and jabbing limbs, equally recalling sibling fights and aggressive sex. It is Caitlin attempting to fix and hold the balance of their relationship, an attempt which inevitably breaks into chaos.
Not every element was quite as smartly plotted. Thighpaulsandra’s soundtrack is so histrionic that it’s practically an interruption. It is far too dictatorial with its audience, using unsubtle volume and crashing guitars to indicate emotional weight, and ends up feeling like a parody of intensity. Some of the scenes meant to represent debauchery or anger suffer from a similar sense of pastiche. Ladd smashing chairs into ground, or Emberton and Ladd screamingly carousing like a couple of metalheads, come across as attempts at provocation rather than actual provocation. Without the conviction of real wildness, they felt forced.
Despite these drawbacks, Caitlin is a powerful piece that engages with the problem of the ‘secondary’ biography – the famous writer’s wife, the background to his foreground – with passion and humour.
Caitlin is on until 7th May 2016. Click here for details.