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Bogdanov takes us bac.

Byline: By David Whetstone

Classic Welsh drama Under Milk Wood comes to the North-East stage early next month, weighed down by anniversaries.

The production marks the 50th anniversary of Dylan Thomas' death, the first reading of Under Milk Wood in New York and the first broadcast of the world's most famous radio play.

But one thing makes you suspect it will wear these weighty dates lightly. The director is Michael Bogdanov, whose relationship with the North-East is characterised by short, fizzing encounters. More of that later.

Firstly, was it not almost compulsory for the Wales Theatre Company, of which Wales-born Bogdanov is the founding director, to present Dylan Thomas's famous work at this time?

"In a way, yes," he says.

"But I've done the piece a number of times before and this is also marking the arrival of a major new company.

"The Wales Theatre Company is based at the Swansea Grand which is a wonderful theatre, really the best conversion of an old Victorian theatre in Britain. The theatre has been a receiving house and the theatre in Wales generally has been in a very poor state.

"It's been quite an uphill battle to get money but we started last October and we are in rehearsals for a Shakespeare trilogy, which we're opening later this year."

Encouragingly for Bogdanov and his Welsh actors, Under Milk Wood has garnered some excellent reviews since crossing the border into England.

One reason must be that the director is not just fulfilling obligations with this production.

Plainly he has a passion for Thomas's wonderfully lyrical work which begins "at the beginning" with First Voice intoning: "It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters'-and-rabbits' wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea."

Language like that, tantalising and tongue-twisting, can send a shiver down your spine.

Surprisingly, perhaps, it can be translated with equally pleasing effect.

Bogdanov says: "It has been done thousands of times in hundreds of languages. I've just opened a German version in Hamburg..

"It may be about a small Welsh fishing village (Llareggub ( say it backwards) but there's an instant recognition of all the eccentrics who live there. We've all got some of them in our family."

The director says the first two performances were staged readings in New York with Thomas himself taking the part of First Voice.

But he then died, aged 39, before the first fully staged production. It was a tragically premature end to a wonderfully creative life ( hastened by a fondness for the bottle.

Bogdanov says: "I think he's the greatest lyric poet of the 20th Century and it's no surprise that Under Milk Wood is one of the most studied poems."

Michael Bogdanov directed a production of Under Milk Wood when he worked at Newcastle Playhouse (then the University Theatre) for a couple of eventful years in the early 1970s when the theatre, which recently closed for major refurbishment, was in its infancy.

He can even remember the cast: Jim Carter, Bill Wallis, Ed Wilson, Diana Stabb...

There have been many productions since, even a Japanese one. "This is the first time I've done it with all Welsh actors and it's interesting but academic in a way. Each new actor brings something completely different."

The ever-innovative Bogdanov is still remembered by some in Newcastle for stirring and controversial productions including Revolution and Orgy, the latter provoking a local clergyman into parading up and down outside the theatre each night, urging people not to go inside and put their souls at risk.

A decade later he was in trouble over The Romans In Britain, a National Theatre play acclaimed by many but not by Mary Whitehouse.

The self-appointed guardian of the public morals took him to court, alleging an act of gross indecency on stage, but dropped the case before the director got his chance to defend the play at the Old Bailey.

In 1997, Michael Bogdanov was back in the North-East when his English Shakespeare Company took up residence at the Tyne Theatre (now Newcastle Opera House).

See Under Milk Wood at Newcastle Theatre Royal from June 8 to 12. Tel (0870) 905-5060 for tickets.
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Title Annotation:Ents Theatre Arts
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:May 26, 2004
Words:705
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