As a Dylan Thomas fanboy (my copy of The Dylan Thomas Omnibus never leaves my bedside) I was very excited about getting my hands on a copy of this book. It’s an illustrated retelling of Thomas’s classic ‘play for voices’ that made its debut in 1954.
For those that don’t already know, Under Milkwood chronicles a day in the life of a small, ‘lulled and dumbfound’ seaside town in Wales called Llareggub. The story begins and ends at night, ‘behind the eyes of the sleepers’, and we share all these characters’ ‘dismays and rainbows and tunes and wishes and flight and fall and despairs’ that occur during these glorious 24 hours.
This lovingly produced book comes courtesy of singer/songwriter/author/radio presenter Cerys Matthews, another Thomas devotee, who has in the past recorded an album based on his work (A Child’s Christmas, 2014). As a ‘retelling’, the original text is not presented here in its complete form. Instead, exquisite paintings by illustrator and artist Kate Evans do much of the work without losing any of the evocative power of the original, as her images capture perfectly the sombre, playful and bittersweet mood that Thomas’s words so vividly paint in the mind.
In the biggest change to the narrative, Cerys has taken pieces from the play’s opening and moved them to the latter pages, using them to extend the evening. In the original work, Thomas devotes a great deal of attention to the comings and goings of the villagers during the morning and afternoon, with dusk arriving and departing rather abruptly.
Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to attend a launch event in Swansea where the author chatted about the concept behind her retelling, about her agonising over what text to keep and what to lose, and about how the original play is saturated with love. And on this I absolutely agree. There’s unrequited love, love for husbands both drunk and sober, love in stitches hung on the wall and love for the town itself expressed in sermons. And in this book you’ll find love on every page; love for the characters, love for the setting, love for the words.
Cerys said at the event that this book would be a great way to introduce children to the work of Dylan Thomas. As well as the enchanting and playful artwork, the story is packed with loveably eccentric characters, wry observations and crackling dialogue. And just to keep things kid-friendly, Cerys has replaced Captain Cat’s immortal line, delivered with the lost love of his life, Rosie Probert, in mind, “Let me shipwreck in your thighs”, with “Let me shipwreck in your eyes.”
To produce a retelling of a classic work – especially one so beloved – is a brave thing to do, and only someone who truly loves the original could have pulled it off so beautifully. It’s as much a tribute as it is a retelling. So, whether you’re familiar with original work or have yet to discover it, I think you’ll fall in love with this gorgeous book.
Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood: a Retelling by Cerys Matthews, illustrated by Kate Evans, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson and is out now.