POETRY AS THEATRE

I am not a devoted poetry reader. My mother loved reading poetry and knew many poems by heart. I would stand at the kitchen door, watching her polishing the red linoleum floor, at the same time listening her recite The Lady of Shalott written by Alfred Lord Tennyson. But in her web she still delights To weave the mirror’s magic sights, For often thro’ the silent nights A funeral, with plumes and lights And music, went to Camelot: Or when the moon was overhead, Came two young lovers lately wed: “I am half sick of shadows,” said The Lady of Shalott.

One Christmas I received a copy of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by TS Eliot and immediately fell in love with the rhythm and fun of the words. There’s a whisper down the line at 11.39 When the Night Mail’s ready to depart, Saying ‘Skimble, where is Skimble has he gone to hunt the thimble? We must find him or the train can’t start.

At school I read My Last Duchess by Browning and found the implied story fascinating. When I read Anita Brookner’s novel Hotel du Lac, I wondered if this poem gave her an idea for her story line– rich man marries for convenience and gain, when tired of his wife he has her murdered.That’s my last Duchess, painted on the wall, Looking as if she were alive…She thanked men-good! But thanked Somehow-I know now how-as if she ranked My gift of a nine-hundreds-years old name With anybody’s gift… This grew; I gave commands; then all stopped together. Not that Brookner’s heroine was murdered. She spotted the trap and left her suitor cruising the lake alone.

Later, I was introduced to Under Milk Wood written by Dylan Thomas, described as a Play for Voices. On the back of my copy is written the most enchanting and original work for broadcasting ever written. The play was broadcast on the radio, read by Richard Burton.

Which brings me to the point of this blog. A few years ago I followed a course covering writing for the BBC and learnt that while television is about watching, the radio is about listening. Last week I went to see the National Theatre’s current production of Under Milk Wood. For me, it didn’t work. Although it was a clever idea to open the play in an old people’s home, I found that confusing and would have preferred the opening to be a reading of the first pages, taking the audience into the village and introducing the characters slowly as Dylan Thomas did.

From where you are, you can hear their dreams. Captain Cat, the retired blind seacaptain, asleep in his bunk in the seashelled, ship-in-bottled, shipshape best cabin of Schooner House dreams of… So many characters, with the audience having no possibility of flipping the pages back to check – Now which one is married to Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard at the moment?- and the darkest humour was lost: Mrs Beynon slips the grisly bits under the tasselled tablecloth to her fat cat. [Cat purrs] Mrs Beynon: She likes the liver, Ben. Mr Beynon: She ought to do, Bess. It’s her brother’s. However, the performance is a brave experiment, expected of the National Theatre. Next? How about a reading on Radio 4 so the audience can concentrate on the language of poetry?  

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