Under Milk Wood, A Play for Voices
by Dylan Thomas
Sydney Opera House, Drama Theatre: 31 May 2012
plays in Sydney until 7 July
The Sydney Theatre Company
Director – Kip Williams
Set Designer – Robert Cousins
Original Costume Design – Alice Babidge
Lighting Designer – Damien Cooper
Musical Director & Composer – Alan John
Sound Designer – Steve Francis
Costume Realiser – David Fleischer
Voice and Dialect Director – Charmian Gradwell
Dramaturg – Andrew Upton
Scenic Photographer – Derek Henderson
It is no easy task to stage a radio play, or even a “Play for Voices.” We’re not talking about, say, making a dreadful Hollywood movie, or even a schlocky 1950’s film of War of the Worlds; in Under Milk Wood nothing happens. That’s not so much even the main difficulty, though, as is presenting something to the eye which complements Dylan Thomas’ “prose with blood-pressure,” an actor’s doing things — or choosing to stay immobile — and creating activity in a sensible way without stepping on the imagination’s toes. Something similar goes for the cooperative efforts of the costume, set, and music. One way might be to make a sort of symphonic concert out of it, in three movements: night, day, and evening, the actors using their voices mainly with minimal secondaries of costume, gesture, lighting and music, a verbal analogue to a recital or concert. The other extreme might be to turn it into a ‘proper play,’ with with changing sets of Coronation Street, matte paintings behind of Llareggub Hill and Milk Wood, changing to Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard’s parlor, and so on, but even these couldn’t keep up with Thomas’ fast-as-dream flight from house to house, it would look like an attention-deficient mess, would have destructive sentimentality, and would abuse the audience’s imaginations and their ears’ and mind’s eyes. Dylan Thomas’ description is so vivid, the imagery in his prose (which he was sensible, honest and unpretentious enough to call prose), with its quick unfurling of chains of words, and its taught, lithe rhythm, which is more than poetic enough for the sharply outlined, almost to the point of caricatured, characters with their simple psyches who we see unconscious and conscious, inside and out. There are few scientific mysteries in Llareggub, or rather they are brushed aside. The description is unsolid and doesn’t need to be solid, it is so vivid. The characters are borderline cartoonish already, or perhaps nowadays we could say graphic novelish, the play does remind me a bit of Ben Katchor’s.
One could also try something outside that spectrum of familiar performing arts outings described above, where the visual part is complementary to the spoken words, or not as the case may be — this could indeed make for some dreadful art if done badly installation-style, for example, or, say, as an interpretive dance. Maybe the latter wouldn’t be too bad if the choreography were simple enough so as not to spin poor Thomas in his grave. The Sydney Theatre Company, perhaps thankfully in this light, has opted for a more familiar theatre piece in between these extremes. They have a minimal set, essentially the black box with with props, window-frames built along the back wall with red geraniums in the window boxes and through the panes a view of the bay and the seashore out in the distance, which with the clever back projection fades into sunrise, to day, to sunset and dusk. The props and furniture are quickly shuffled around under the narration — the simple minimum to give a sense of the place: a rack of clothes rolls on to indicate Mog’s store for Mog Edwards to recite his love letter to Myfanwy Price, chairs and tables are brought on for the meal scenes, breakfast sees the whole town together at a long boarding house-style communal table. The narration’s easily-given suspension of disbelief helps to turn the actors into cows. Organ Morgan is pushed on and off with his organ, instrument and character played live by composer Alan John. He is left when needed on stage to accompany other characters’ songs, especially Polly Garter’s “Willy Wee” song and Mr Waldo’s “Come and sweep my chimbley” song, though maybe out of character for Morgan the Johann Sebastian lover, it’s easy enough to suspend disbelief as each actor plays many roles. Though the set makes simple sketches, the reshufflings are elaborately choreographed, sometimes so unlikely to be humorous, so generally the activity is inline with Dylan Thomas’ sense of humor, and the designer has refrained from throwing together certain scenes which go by too fast in the narration to keep up with. On the wide stage, the nearly constant movement, simultaneous in different corners of the stage, can be distracting, the center of attention becomes divided, and the narration, read and recited carefully and unsentimentally, at times quite forcefully by Jack Thompson and Sandy Gore, loses some of its power, or at least is dimmed. Unfortunately, the window-frames in the back of the stage couple with the stuffiness of the sold-out theatre to give an sense of being stuck in-doors which opposes the play, except maybe for Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard’s guest house where the sun has to wipe its feet before coming in and the Pughs’ “blind-drawn dark dining room of School House, dusty and echoing as a dining-room in a vault.”
The general thrust of the play is actors acting out, having fun doing it in that style of acting which comes to each one of them most comfortably. It is almost madcap at times, loony, flamboyant, wild and usually unrestrained. Sometimes it is too literal-minded and adds nothing to the existing words, when an actor merely acts out the narrated scene, for example Mae Rose Cottage’s literally drawing circles on her breasts in red lipstick. Nogood Boyo strips as he leaves the stage, leaving his underpants there for the rest of the play, which isn’t so much literal-minded as entirely unprovoked and utterly random, maybe that’s how Welsh bawdiness translates into Sydney bawdiness. Silly, though really no more so than Dylan Thomas, is Helen Thomson’s ‘strine, exaggerated on purpose, for the bully Girl who rhymes awkwardly to get kisses and pennies. I’m not sure I can read the lines now without hearing an Australian, though the scene comes off very naturally in its own way, she’s pretty scary. Also young Ky Baldwin, a boy of 10 or so, plays the 85 years-three-months-and-a-day-old Mary Ann Sailors. Though it becomes obvious at times, for example, casting Bruce Spence for both a well-gnarled and -salted Captain Cat and young Lily Smalls. I don’t want to give the impression that the play had ADD, for it didn’t, the play itself is pretty silly, but the Sydney Theatre Company did go too far too slackly at times. It becomes chaotic as bits of the props collect on stage, down, underpants, etc. (though something is needed to fill that huge black empty space), losing some of the play’s very natural, bucolic, lack of self-consciousness.
Having said that, Jack Thompson reads and recites the narration expressively, but levelly, taking his time especially over the opening, where he is alone in completely empty black space, which is quite effective, though maybe he dragged just a tad in pausing to point out a line like “…sloeblack, slow, black…” but erred on the side of poetry-reading, and he was understated in a way also in his slowly approaching and receding from the audience. It is a shame the action sometimes distracted from his vivid readings of the vivid words, he could tingle your spine at times. It is not easy stuff to recite, either. Sandy Gore as the second narrator, spoke very naturally, more story-book-reading than Thompson, but likewise never sentimental. She also played a stereotypical uptight Mrs Ogmore-Pitchard. Drew Forsythe stood out as more understated, more faithful in not stepping on his characters’ feet so hard, also very versatile, playing a deadpan Butcher Beynon, an ernest but down-to-earth, contently mild and worldly Reverend Eli Jenkins, and Mr Waldo too without obviousness. Paula Arundell, perhaps not understated, but acting as she knows how with versatility and borderline tragic, a very prim but almost uptight Myfanwy Price, a serene but quite intense and tragic Polly Garter, though her bluesy melody for the “Little Willy Wee” song drags a bit on the otherwise very good timing, also playing Mae Rose Cottage. The cast sings the songs well, if a bit self-consciously.
Something can be said for a native Welsh performance, with beautiful voices and mellifluous, perhaps subtle narration; sometimes at one lower level the heavier alliteration feels like the Britons’ revenge on the Anglo-Saxons through literature. These Sydney actors — the adults anyway — have quite harsh voices, except for Sandy Gore and Jack Thompson’s appealing rich voice. Sometimes purposefully harsh in tone, but always with a gravelly edge. It’s probably too much to ask for 1930’s radio voices, though we have some available recordings of Under Milk Woodincluding the ubiquitous Richard Burton one, and Dylan Thomas himself in the very first 1954 New York performance recorded by Caedmon records. In that light, it is commendable that the Sydney Theatre Company, rather than taking a well-trodden route, has gone their own way, speaking to the beat of their own drummer, as it were, thankfully steering well clear of stodginess and sentimentality.