Caitlin, up close and personal

Jennifer Kishan | Updated on February 01, 2019 Published on February 01, 2019

Powered by the past: The play draws heavily on two texts — Double Drink Story by Caitlin Thomas and George Tremlett’s Caitlin, Life with Dylan Thomas   -  JENNIFER KISHAN

Caitlin Macnamara Thomas recalls her tumultuous marriage with the poet Dylan Thomas in a reconstructed stage show set 20 years after his death, and a little more than 20 years before her own

The light caresses a circle of 40 chairs, 20 of which the audience occupies. “Hello. My name is Caitlin and I’m an alcoholic,” says the figure at the centre.

The speaker — a role played by Eddie Ladd — is Caitlin Macnamara Thomas, Dylan Thomas’s vivacious wife. She is at an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) gathering, talking about her marriage 20 years after the poet’s death. Thomas and Caitlin had their lives entwined in a tempestuous and highly passionate union, embroiled in love, jealousy, addiction, infidelity and financial impoverishment. And a group of UK-based artistes has dramatised the relationship in an electrifying show.

In one of his unpublished letters, recently auctioned at Sotheby’s, the poet opens his heart out to Caitlin, then his future wife. “I want you to be with me: you can have all the spaces between the houses, and I can have a room with no windows; we’ll make a halfway house; you can teach me to walk in the air, and I’ll teach you to make nice noises on the piano without any music; we’ll have a bed in a bar, as we said we would, and we shan’t have any money at all and we’ll live on other people’s,” he writes.

In CAITLIN, directed by Deborah Light and choreographed by Light, Ladd and Gwyn Emberton, the protagonist attempts to give words to her own disappointments and emotions and reconstructs her past while she grapples with her post-Thomas life. Known to have been outgoing and Bohemian, she was a budding dancer, perhaps destined to rise herself but for her chance meeting with Thomas at a pub.

“It was going to be a truce between his brains and my body,” she tells the audience at a performance in Kolkata, while describing her initial expectations from the marriage. “We were supposed to be equal,” she says as she moves her chair out of the circle, while Thomas takes centre-stage. And so starts her account of trying to find her role within an unequal and unfaithful partnership in the reflected glory of his rising fame.

The play is set 20 years after the death in 1953 of the celebrated poet, and some 20 years before her own death in 1994. Highly charged with both emotional and physical drama, it envelops the audience in a meteoric rise and fall of emotions, draining out the actors and the viewers alike. Unlike the usual proscenium stage with text-based dialogues, the production chooses a more unconventional route of physically charged action amidst an up-close-and-personal audience.

The 20 unoccupied chairs are props in themselves and dexterous in the parts they play — bent this way or that, they become prams, weapons, pedestals, desks, beds, highchairs, low chairs, straitjackets, nooses, bar counters and tombstones. Together, they stand as metaphors for the emotional upheavals in their marriage.

Skilfully executed by Ladd (Caitlin) and Emberton (Thomas), the production is a powerhouse of raw emotions — some tender and some outrageously brutal. The audience squirms as the two squander their talent and love while quenching their alcoholic addiction. The rich narrative and choreography, seemingly improvised, are in fact steeped in precise movement language.

“The interactions are specific and we do not change the movement steps. The only part that we change and improvise on is our own emotional energy that we come with on the day of the performance,” Ladd tells BLink. Asked about the most challenging aspects of their roles, Emberton points to the framework of the AA meeting which brings the audience that much closer to the action.

“It is as if the audience is complicit in this, enabling the marriage to reach its fatal end. It takes time to get used to the close proximity at which the actors and the audience interact. The audience’s reaction to the brutal pathos of the play, for instance, sometimes affects our energy, as it may be misconstrued as disinterest,” Emberton says.

The play primarily gives her resentment a voice, as Caitlin backtracks through her life to make sense of what happened and why. Most of this is expressed not through words but physical enactments. The format of an AA meeting helps in her stream of consciousness as she surfs through a web of emotions and life events that finally culminate in her husband’s untimely death in the US at the age of 39. With very little dialogue, it is the music score by Cardiff-based sound artist Sion Orgon that traces these emotions intimately, and fills the gaps in between.

The play draws heavily on two texts — Double Drink Story by Caitlin Thomas and George Tremlett’s Caitlin, Life with Dylan Thomas. The play was first commissioned by the National Library of Wales for the centenary year celebration of Dylan Thomas in 2014. The winner of the Best Dance Production, Wales Theatre Awards, 2015, it has toured all over London, Scotland and Wales since its inception. Supported by British Council and Wales Arts International, it was recently presented at the Goethe Institut, Max Mueller Bhavan Kolkata, by the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet 2019 and Pickle Factory Dance Foundation, a platform for the practice and presentation of dance and movement-based work in India.

Jennifer Kishan is a freelance writer and photojournalist based in Kolkata

Published on February 01, 2019
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