Thursday, November 15, 2012

Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas

Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas.  WildVoicesmusictheatre, directed by Dianna Nixon, composer Vanessay Nimmo, at The Street Theatre, Canberra, November 14-17, 2012.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 14

Since Dianna Nixon chose to present Under Milk Wood in a quite similar way on the stage to the very first performance of the Play for Voices (at the YMHA Poetry Centre, New York, May 14, 1953), I thought I should listen to my still serviceable vinyl recording as a comparison.

Different, but in some ways equal.  Dylan Thomas was commissioned by the BBC, and the “Y” performance was still a work-in-progress.  According to the sleeve notes, “The final scene was typed as the audience was being seated”!  And it was, of course, intended for and performed by adults.

Dianna Nixon has written “WildVoicesmusictheatre has been established to create and present music theatre events and activities with a commitment to cross-curricular arts pedagogy – alongside professional practice – and celebrating multiskilling.  Vocal and physical skills are central to our work.  Our pedagogy eschews the concept of talent, and instead we focus on relationships, process and long-term skills development – and on sharing our passion for the heritage on which performing arts practice is based.”

Like the “Y”, Nixon could never have afforded or found volunteers to present one actor per character, which would – as the sleeve notes say – “have given the impression of a local Philharmonic”.  As chance would have it the “Y” had only five professional actors available, plus Thomas who significantly played the 1st Voice and the Reverend Eli Jenkins.  Each one stood, still throughout except for when Thomas, on the advice of the actors, took two steps forward for Eli Jenkins’ morning prayer.  Nixon, on the other hand had her Voices for the main part seated, but with some movement carefully devised to add to the drama visually.

In her production, Nixon plays the 1st Voice and piano – she has a B.A., Music (piano) from VCA – while the other parts are played by six adult professional singer/actor/musicians: Nick Byrne, Tobias Cole, Dene Kermond, Kate Hosking, Zsuzsi Soboslay and PJ Williams, as well as 20 children.  Three teenagers, Bethany Stoney, Aidan Pierlot and Felicity Ward were the “Foley Team”, producing all the necessary sound effects devised by Vanessa Nimmo.  In the original recording there was a bare minimum of sounds beyond those heard in the imagination in response to Thomas’ poetic descriptions.

Watching this WildVoices performance I was reminded of the Goon Show.  This is in no way a derogatory thought, because it was quite fascinating, as it was for the Goon Show’s BBC studio audiences, to see the sounds being made live as the actors spoke.  In using a live foley team, Nixon has fulfilled her pedagogical aim.  The youngsters were learning the “heritage on which performing arts practice is based” – so much better than googling YouTube or downloading iTunes.

In taking this approach, and setting appropriate parts to music, Nixon has equalled Thomas.  At the same time, his more spare presentation did some things that Nixon’s softer more mellifluous approach doesn’t.  Partly because of time passing and Under Milk Wood now being a familar classic instead of a case of the shock of the new as it was in 1953, Nixon’s visit to Llareggub is almost a romantic trip.  For Thomas, as you hear in the recording, there is a hard edge behind the quaintness.  As the sleeve notes say (written by someone unfortunately unacknowledged) “Why the audience finds the motley crew of variously henpecked, overbearing, drunken, promiscuous townspeople so funny might be a study for psychologists, had psychologists not long ago determined that misfortune at this remove is cause for self-congratulation and laughter .... But the laughter is cathartic, too.”

Our applause on November 14, 2012 could not match that of  May 14, 1953 when Dylan Thomas’ “shy and stammered ‘Thank you, thank you very much’ is lost in the shouts of the audience.  The bravos come from people close enough to the stage to see the tears that rolled down his cheeks.”  But we justifiably applauded a quality production, beautiful, and a great learning experience especially for the children taking part.

Vinyl LP Recording: original recording by Caedmon; my recording by Philips B 94022 L / B 94023 L (2 records)