Monday, 22 April 2013

Under Milk Wood: Respect the words, and the audience

Under Milk Wood
Canberra Repertory Theatre
12-27 April 2013

No production of Under Milk Wood can afford not to give due reverence to the language. Dylan Thomas was a poet as much as, if not more than, a playwright. This play is famously one for voices, so it is these voices the audience long to hear. The poetry must be delivered clearly and lyrically; not pretentiously but with respect. This is a fine balance and one which is relatively well achieved by the company.

Duncan Driver as First Voice, our narrator and guide through Llareggub, is excellent. He delivers the humour and the nuances of his commentary on the villagers. He is aware of all their fancies and foibles, being both one with them while simultaneously standing, or sitting, apart.

Some of the scenes – such as the icy dining room of the Pughs and the loving memories of Captain Cat for Rosie Probert – are beautifully executed. Others, including the Cherry Owens’ recitation of a drunken night out, or Mrs Organ Morgan’s dissertation on the ‘nesting’ habits of Waldo and Polly Garter, are too rushed to provide full emotional engagement.

The ensemble is slightly uneven, with some performers appearing a little out of their depth in the sea of amazing imagery. They are at their best when they succumb to the magic of the words, such as the moving incantation of Mae Rose Cottage as she ‘blows love on a puffball’, or the weary dead husbands of Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard as they recite their daily tasks ‘in order’ to their unbearably virtuous widow.

The scenes where they play stereotypes for laughs, such as the children’s kissing games or the gossiping neighbours, are less effective. Incidentally, it is a surprise and a delight to see such a strong male cast on an amateur theatre stage, where typically talented female actors dominate. Director, Duncan Ley is to be congratulated for gathering such aptitude about him.

Obviously the play follows the passage of the day, but the lighting level is often too gloomy (lighting design by Chris Ellyard). The audience must adjust to the language; they shouldn’t have to strain to see the stage as well. First Voice instructs, “only you can see”, but actually, we can’t. When the sets are finally revealed, they are superb (set design by Anne Kay) and adapt brilliantly to their myriad uses.

Music is used throughout to good effect (sound design by Neil McRitchie) and the inclusion of the Welsh rugby crowd is a pleasing, if obvious, touch, but live singing rather than recorded choirs would have been preferable. Polly Garter’s ode to Little Willy Wee is touching in its simple poignancy, but more of this would make better sense of the Reverend Eli Jenkins’ “Praise the Lord! We are a musical nation.”

Ley references the play-for-voices issue by having the actors file on to sit, scripts in hand, arranged across the stage, in a nod to Goons-style performances where actors read their lines without movement. A flick of a switch alters everything and the audience is credited with enough imagination to interpret the colourful characters and their incredible actions.

Swift and effective costume changes enhance the transformations (costume design by Heather Spong) with a shawl or headscarf here, an apron or cloth cap there, indicating another of the 50+ characters. In these days of all too frequent meta-detail, explanatory back stories and paint-by-numbers directing, it is a pleasure for an audience to be treated with respect.


Anonymous said...

What a pity that we left too soon. Did you know what llareggub means?

Kate Blackhurst said...

Yes, I did. We studied Under Milk Wood at school and, as I'm sure you can imagine, third formers found that the highlight of the play!