I first heard Dylan Thomas’s famed villanelle, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” just a couple weeks ago in the new Christopher Nolan blockbuster Interstellar. Michael Caine, each time the topic of mortality comes up (which is often) beats us over the head with it — “rage, rage, against the dying of the light” — and proceeds to build a giant spaceship. I can’t say I was particularly enthralled with Thomas after that. The grand conclusion of his poetry — don’t die? Try really hard not to die? I was unimpressed.
But pretentiously waxing poetic about immortality and actually achieving it are two different things. Thomas — his poetry and humanity brought to life by Welsh actor Ben Kingdom for an hour — achieves the latter in “Dylan Thomas: Return Journey,” a one-man-show that played at the Yale Center for British Art on Thursday. This frustratingly simple production is not a play or a monologue; it is something much closer to a resurrection.
Although performed by Kingdom, the play is a seamless stringing together of Thomas’s prose and poetry, and feels driven by Thomas himself. Without much reason (but a good amount of rhyme) “Return Journey” shows Thomas ambling into the past, deep into his childhood. His destinations are trivial: The stories he tells of old men pub-hopping and Christmas Eve fires are amusing and laden with nostalgia, but of little apparent significance. Along the way, however, Thomas runs into poem after poem. At first, they seem random, out of place, but we begin to see that these memories may be the underground springs from which his poetry surges forth.
With whimsy and subtle melancholy, Thomas tells us of throwing snowballs at the neighbor’s burning house until the fire engine came. He gets a look in his eyes, the lights dim, and the poetry commences. More uncanny than Kingdom’s embodiment of Thomas’s ghost, however, was how this famous poem felt as natural as the story that launched it. Yes, obviously this was a poem: The shadowy intensity of the moment commanded a little bit more of our attention, the language was a little bit denser. Yet it was an organic outpouring.
That this piece captures the end of Thomas’s life seems rather fitting: It can be seen as a meditation on death in form and content. It has a certain movement to it — the audience laughs much more at the beginning. Though it remains amusing the whole time, the dry humor is supplanted by a gentle darkness as the piece orbits death at an ever-decreasing distance. And by confronting us with the reality of death, only to contradict itself by placing an immortal Thomas in front of us, the piece succeeds in a way that few performances can: It gives profundity to its source material. Thomas’s poetry about death is what brings him back to life. While I’d thought Thomas to be a shallow poet ruminating in a mildly interesting way on the oldest idea in the book, “Return Journey” showcases the nuances of his approach in a beautiful and unexpected way.
All this being said, I was not as spellbound by the show as many reviewers have claimed to be. At times, Thomas’s tale seemed a little too self-indulgent, his accent a little too impenetrable. In these fleeting moments, the magic was interrupted, the narrative thread lost and I had a vague sense of annoyance at the whole ordeal. Though it’s possible I just needed more coffee, I think that this excessive theatricality was a trait of Thomas himself. Just listen to a recording of him reading one of his famous poems. Though haunting and passionate, Thomas savors his words just a little too much, as if to say “I know this is good.” While that same pomp sometimes bogs down “Return Journey,” it is, on the whole, a successful resurrection of Thomas in all of his spirit. “Return Journey” was only at Yale for one night, but with a volume of Thomas’s poetry and a bit patience, you can resurrect him yourself.