Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 37, Number 5. 3rd April 1974
Adventures in the Skin Trade: Andrew Sinclair (adapted from the novel by Dylan Thomas). Victoria University Drama Society.
Its been said to me several times since I saw this production; it's been said many times before and I doubt if now I have heard the last of it; "But the language is so lovely.... the language...." Which of course, it is. What I object to is the implication that such appreciation is reason for ignoring or discounting or refusing to criticise whatever else is going on and that the appreciation of the beauty of the sound is off in some realm the coarse world cannot touch.
The problem is found as often as Dylan Thomas is found—in this play as elsewhere. Although the text is adapted by Andrew Sinclair, I would say (going by the sound) much of it is Thomas himself. Also at various times through-out Thomas poems are read from the stage, and read rather well and not simply for sound-value. I mean, there are other and better reasons for going along; if you are one of the sound and fury school, you're better off sitting in your room all misty-eyed over a book.
Both the novel and the play are autobiographical. The story is of the young Sam Bennet from Cardiff who goes to London to seek his fortune. We see his first three years there, loosely structured in seven episodes, each representing one of the seven deadly sins—or skins, since the trade is in both. Various familiar Thomas motifs—the scissor man and the tailor, the birth that is the beginning of death, poet as bard and namer and so on—appear in Sam's metamorphosis from an innocent young hopeful to the weary and naked singer we see at the end. The play is rich in suggestive metaphor as any Thomas poem but, thankfully, this it fixed solidly enough in the ordinary event to make disentanglement leu than necessary. In a way, a production like this can only succeed to the extent that it escapes the Thomas myth, to allow the humour, the self-parody and the satire through.
Much of the credit for the play's achievement must go to John Scones, who played Sam Bennet. The part is extremely difficult, I'd say—to play the man who spent his whole life having to play himself. He coped with this by underplaying the role, refusing to dramatise, refusing great rhetorical flights, by being as ordinary as possible—and paradoxically he won himself some authority by the play's end. Of course, Sam Bennet is acted on by events and people, he is not a mover. His assertions, when they are not poems, are refusals—"Leave me alone, why won't you leave me alone?' Those who act upon him are a strange and motley collection. First, his family, in the film-sequence which begins the play—where the poor quality of sound and of film gave a rather pleasant period flavour. All these people double up as Sam's London family', living dislocated lives among piles of old furniture and assorted bric-a-brac. Peter White gives a fine, if not entirely consistent portrayel of the lugubrious Mr Allington; Anne Budd is rather more lively (perverse) as Polly; she has one lovely line, 'Oh I was only doing a depiction!' Also in this household is George Ring, played by Jim MacFarlane, outrageously camp, disgustingly sentimental. He had more 'stage presence', for want of a better term, than anyone else and it was good to see the way he absented himself when the presence was unnecessary. One other character stands out, not so much for her acting as for her ability to command attention. This was Lucille (Gillian Skyrme) Sam's ideal and actual mistress—she was delectable.
I felt all the characters were somewhat underplayed however, though this may have been intentional. There's a great deal that is very funny in the play, which did not always come clear. And some of the humour was overemphasised—the bottle that got stuck on Sam's finger stayed there too long, the joke got tedious. I got the feeling too that the play would come off much better if it was paced up somewhat. The extravagant and weighty sets, good as they were, stood in the way of the progress and the adventures. They also restricted the area of stage that could be used, particularly the depth of space. In fact, a play like this, with its sets, its heavy literary overtones, its tendency towards melodramatic rhetoric, even the set-piece poetry readings, puts a lot of obstacles in the way of a successful production. These were coped with rather than transcended; to enjoy the play I had to deliberately ignore some of what went on. I think the reason that the second part was much more absorbing was, that with its heavier more serious overtones, it was more suitable to a slower treatment. Though even here the continued movement of large groups of people (in the Salvador Dali scene) is pointless and clumsy.
With all these disadvantages, which are obtrusive by their very nature, its odd how good the whole thing feels. Because, I think the direction managed to avoid perhaps less obvious dangers—like that of getting too involved in the music of the language, which is after all on one of the aspects of one of the mediums theatre has at its disposal. Or that of being weighty and significant at the end about art and the artist, of getting carried away with the literary and biographical myth. In short, its a production that never forgets that it is a piece of theatre, and though its by no means brilliant, its satisfying to sec, working more with humour and pathos than with larger significances.