A dance-drama about the troubled lives of Caitlin & Dylan Thomas
The performance space is occupied by a circle of about forty folding chairs – some red, some grey. Sit in whichever of the grey chairs you like, each audience member is told. (The empty red chairs will shortly play an important part in the production.)
When the audience is assembled, Caitlin enters and introduces herself: My name’s Caitlin and I’m an alcoholic. So we are with her in an AA meeting. She continues: my husband was a very famous poet. I was going to be a very famous dancer. And at this point we see that Dylan Thomas – or perhaps his ghost – has been sitting opposite her in the circle and he now moves towards her. And thus begins an unrestrainedly energetic yet disturbingly intimate choreographed re-enactment of their tempestuous life together.
For about sixty minutes, the two performers show astonishing timing, precision and trust in one another as they entwine their bodies and then fling themselves apart to portray the intensity and instability of the Caitlin-Dylan relationship. Especially memorable is the tenderness conveyed by the extraordinary passages where Caitlin is wrapped around Dylan’s head and clinging so tightly that neither is able to see where they are going. But equally gripping are the slack-limbed contortions in scenes of wild drunkenness – in which the characters are sometimes bouncing off the walls and sometimes crawling on all fours like animals (as in an apocryphal story of Dylan Thomas and Malcolm Lowry baying at the moon in the bar of the Sylvia hotel in Vancouver). Frustration and resentment emerge in Caitlin’s fist-clenched, angrily mechanical pushing of an invisible pram; and at other times passion or jealousy (provoked both by marital infidelities and by Caitlin’s confession my husband was a very famous poet. I think I resented that) causes them to grapple and writhe on the floor around our feet. Initially, such close-up contact with undignified expression of private emotion feels unsettlingly inappropriate; but because the actors give no hint of being aware of our presence, we can set aside embarrassment and (at least begin to) empathise with their distress.
While the dance moves made by the performers with each other are remarkable, the things that they do with the unoccupied red chairs are also astonishing. Frequently they climb through the chair’s framework so they are essentially wearing it in order to represent, for instance, a strait-jacket or a baby’s high-chair. At one point the same chair is hanging round both their necks, suggesting the now-inescapable yoking together of their lives. A deck of flat-folded chairs represents the psychological burdens weighing down on Caitlin’s shoulders; and Dylan has to mount a precariously balanced stack of four chairs to represent the dangers attending on his climb to fame.
The piece is full of images and metaphors as telling and as memorable as those I have sought to describe. It is no surprise that Caitlin won the prize for Best Dance Production in the 2015 Welsh Theatre Awards. It continues to play at the Battersea Arts Centre for two more days (May 6 & 7); and London Grip readers in Wales should note that there will be further performances in June (10th-11th in Aberystwyth, 19th in Powys, 25th-26th at Laugharne) and July (5th in Harlech, 7th-12th in Cardiff, 15th-16th in Caernarfon). All the above are well worth following up in the local press.
. Michael Bartholomew-Biggs