Sunday, April 14, 2013

Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas

Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas.  Canberra Rep directed by Duncan Ley at Theatre 3, Canberra, April 12-27, 2013.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 13

For 50 years I have heard the words of Under Milk Wood and allowed them to fill the spaces in my mind with a myriad of images – of the characters and even of their dreams.  Now I have a new set of visual and audio memories, created by Duncan Ley and his designers Anne Kay (set), Heather Spong (costumes), Chris Ellyard (lighting), and Neil McRitchie (sound) to add to and renew my old imagination.

This is a great achievement on Rep’s part, and a great joy to me.

Ley’s directing is exquisite.  Using Duncan Driver as 1st Voice, physically present but unseen by the village dwellers, as the close-up observer on our behalf, he has created for us a solid personality in place of the traditional disembodied voice of the original radio play.  Having an experienced and skilled ensemble cast of 10 – Geoffrey Borny, Alice Ferguson, Sian Harrington, Peter Holland, Terry Johnson, Adele Lewin, David McNamara, Erin Pugh, Steph Roberts and Graham Robertson – enabled Ley and his design team to work out a highly complex scheme to present just about all the characters physically, including the children (the “kiss me for a penny” scene was especially wonderful) and even more detail in the daily life in the street than Thomas’s words describe.

This is done so well because Ley has a clear concept of the theatrical form he is using.  Essentially it is expressionist in style, with all that tradition of black, light and shadow, but given what I might call a gentle touch.  The only harshness was to throw the main switch to shock us out of the reality of seeing actors out of role and into the black of night to begin the action; and to do the same in reverse at the end.  Yet this risky device worked perfectly.

I should also add the properties person, Helen Vaughan-Roberts, to the list of credits because the collecting of all those props hung on the moveable scene sections, representing characters’ kitchens, bedrooms, shops and so on must have been a daunting task.  They made the set a visual feast in its own right.

A completely new thought for me was to use recordings of the Welsh crowd singing at  a rugby match, and of the traditional Welsh male voice choir at significant points.  I wondered about this at first, but the ending especially took any of my doubts away.  The sound track put the play into its proper context, and gave it extra strength on stage.

If Dylan Thomas, high up in Rev Eli Jenkins’ idea of heaven, is watching this production, I’m certain he would not be saying the village’s name backwards.  He may be wishing he could be here to take part in an exciting improvement on the limited first performance he was able to offer at the YMHA Poetry Centre, New York, May 14, 1953, with only five actors and himself standing stock still, except for when he stepped forward two paces to deliver Rev Eli Jenkins’ morning poem.  I now have that recording and Ley’s staging to keep my imagination going for another, perhaps not 50, years.