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This article was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on December 8,
1999. All rights reserved.
Magical `Child’s Christmas in Wales’
One Christmas was so much like another, in those years
around the sea-town corner. . ."
"At most performances of `A Child’s Christmas in Wales,’ gasps
of pleasure can be heard coming from members of the audience, as soon
as these first words are spoken," says Robert Duke, the director
of the play with music at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival. As
imaginatively adapted by Jeremy Brooks and Adrian Mitchell, Dylan
Thomas’s prose recollection proved such an audience-pleaser last year
that it is now playing a return engagement through December 23.
Yes, there is a holiday entertainment alternative to the perennial
and (dare I suggest?) over-produced "A Christmas Carol." This
version of "A Child’s Christmas in Wales" was first presented
at the Shakespeare Festival in 1987, and Duke’s staging has been
as a marked enhancement over the original production, and even that
was described by Variety as "a stunning production."
Some adults may sense the tragedy of Thomas’s early death from
at age 39 as casting a poignant shadow over the otherwise lilting
and lyrical evocation of the Christmas Spirit in the village of
Most people, however, will view his minutely detailed evocation of
one Christmas Day gathering as a journey into the magical and joyously
perplexing world of a happy child.
While the language of the original prose has not been changed, the
playwrights incorporated characters and events from other Thomas short
stories. They also embroidered his memories of plum pudding, mince
pies, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends, with traditional
hymns and carols, some of them spiced, as the Welsh are wont to do,
with some deliciously irreverent lyrics.
With the "distant voices" of the poet’s youth comes an
day that includes the obligatory teasing of girls, the pranks of
boys, the chaos surrounding a burnt turkey, a visit by the fire
and the family tradition of sitting around after dinner and telling
hair-raising ghost stories. Duke says the wonderful cast was easily
put into the spirit of the piece when they were encouraged to share
with each other their own and sometimes equally strange Christmas
Duke thinks of it as "a little bit epic because `A Child’s
in Wales’ gives you the feeling that it is all of Thomas’s family
Christmases and every holiday and family event all rolled into one.
The more time we spend with it we realize how much the audience
in the successful outcome of the occasion," says Duke who also
acknowledges that a burnt turkey may, indeed, be the most dramatic
turn of events. More importantly Duke sees Thomas’s "the lovely
languor of satisfied dreams" as giving audiences what they are
Although both he and the actor Andy Paterson, who plays Thomas,
to the recording that Thomas made just two years before his death,
they apparently were not particularly enamoured by Thomas’ delivery
and veered away from it.
"It’s not the best telling of the tale," says Duke.
sort of sings it rather than telling the tale the way it has to be
on a stage, even though a lot of people know that recording."
Duke acknowledges that both he and Paterson knew that their goal
and the company’s was to feel the pleasure of speaking the words,
like eating wonderful food. "It’s hardly Shakespeare, but like
Shakespeare you can put your own imprint on it. I was mostly taken
with the Welshness of it."
Duke knew that a major task was to create a look and a feel for Wales.
Ask anyone who saw the show last year (myself included) and they will
tell you how, without a lot of high tech scenery, the atmosphere
by set designer Larry Brown, is dense with a feeling for this place.
"Most people don’t know what Wales is like," says Duke,
the view of the ocean, and the cliffs that young Thomas could see
from his bedroom window. One doesn’t doubt that, with a little
it is possible to travel to the seven steep hills of Swansea and
Drive where the Thomas family lived.
One of the more imaginative devices used in "A Child’s Christmas
in Wales" is the thread of carols and hymns that have been spliced
into the tale by the adapters. Duke says that his respect grew when
he realized that all the hymns are Welsh or written by Welshmen, and
that it is traditional for them to take old tunes and write new words.
So don’t be surprised if "The Green Grass Grew All Around"
has been changed to "The White Snow Fell," or if you don’t
know the words to "Oh Come, All Ye Faithful," "Holy, Holy,
Holy," or the even more obscure new lyrics actually sung in Welsh
to an old Welsh folk song "Mochyn Du." However,
can be assured that they will still be able to recognize all the
to such favorites as "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and
Through the Night."
It is heartbreaking to think that Thomas would write this sweet,
sentimental story only a couple of years before his death from
Although this lauded short-story writer, poet, and playwright came
to believe that his rather turbulent life had been a series of
he was still able to evoke the kind of memories that make people glad
to be alive. Even as his life was getting harder, his stories were
If these gentle memories seem to be the antithesis of
a man who seemed to be hell-bent for self-destruction, they are,
to Duke "reasonably accurate based on what we know about
Duke says that the research he did paid off because he was able to
find the source for the characters, like the aunts and uncles, that
have been added to the story. "If you dig through the other
says Duke, "you find that an old family friend who was a socialist
grocer is now an uncle."
Duke is impressed how the adapters were able to suggest, in the
between Thomas and his best friend Tom and three or four of his
how, despite the time spent in boyish pranks, "they matched wits
and searched their intellect." In reality, Thomas did have a group
of boyhood friends, many who would become famous, who sat around and
would play a game where each would write a line of poetry and pass
it to the next to continue.
The play takes ideas from "A Child’s Christmas in Wales" as
well as all over Thomas’ writing. "The script is littered with
phrases and dialogue from other short stories." Duke praises the
efforts of adapters to stick to Thomas’ words exclusively. He laughs
telling me how Thomasaphiles love to come to performances and tell
everyone who will listen what short story a particular episode in
the play is taken from. Duke tells me how important it is for him
emphasize how "the Welsh have a very distinct point of view. We
want to take people to a place and a observe a culture that is not
Madison, New Jersey, nor Dickensian London." Duke has no doubts
that the pleasure of the play comes from the language and the way
Thomas tells it from a child’s perspective. He is also pleased that
the adapters have worked in plenty of Christmas cheer without making
us feel "Oh, dear, I’ve seen this before."
With only three new actors added to the cast of 14, the show has a
real sense of family. Because of the warm relationship with his
Duke says there was an urge last season to "bump it up, play with
key changes," and turn the play with music into "a real
musical." "I had to fight it," Duke admits, "because
of the rewards of maintaining the play’s integrity." This means
that instead of having emotion drive the characters to sing, they
are driven to song by nothing more than the love of singing, a very
typical Welsh response. Purists will undoubtedly be impressed by the
Welsh accents, characterized as "lyrical but sharp" by Duke,
that have been mastered thanks to dialect coach Steven Gabis.
Among the returning company that have perfected their Welsh accents
and the Welsh tunes, sung to the accompaniment of an onstage
trio comprised of flute, viola, and keyboard, are Reathal Bean, as
Dylan’s father; Alice Saltzman (this writer’s daughter), as Dylan’s
mother; and John FitzGibbon, as both Tudyr and the Park Keeper. Also
featured are Brigid Brady, as Elieri; Eleanor Glockner, as Hannah;
Larry Raiken, as Gwyn. Rounding out the cast from last season are
Cathleen Charleson, Kristen Dially, Darin J. Dunston, Laura Flanagan,
Francis Kelly, T.R. Shields, and Chrisopher Wisner. Meren Berthelsen
makes her festival debut.
Casting is never an easy job. But, after auditioning about 80 actors
last year, Duke picked Andy Paterson, ironically the first actor to
audition for the role of Thomas. Paterson says he is, "tickled
to be back with this lovely company of people." If this comment
sounds a little bit Thomasian, it is because Paterson, who serves
as narrator and plays Thomas as a boy, has fully embraced the persona
and perspective the poet as a child.
When I ask Paterson what he has done to perfect Thomas’s slightly
gawky 12-year-old self, he replies, "Well, watching Robert (Duke)
hop around in rehearsals is like watching a 12-year-old." On a
more serious note, Paterson reflects on the poignancy of the play
and how it has entered his life.
I try to trip Paterson up by asking him if he ever went (in Thomas’s
words) "bobbing down the hill on the best tea tray."
"As a matter of fact I did, — a hill in Traverse City,
where I grew up," says the actor who makes the closing lines in
the play sound as if he is, indeed, channeling Thomas’s warm
"I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses
on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steady
falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some
words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept."
— Simon Saltzman
Festival , F.M. Kirby Theater, Drew University, Madison,
The Dylan Thomas story continues through Thursday, December 23. $24
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