Under Milk Wood
Wales Theatre Company
Theatre Royal Newcastle and touring
I must declare an interest: I love Under Milk Wood. I know practically very word - indeed, I found myself speaking alongside the actors most of the time! I also hear Richard Burton in my head whenever I think of the play. Second interest: I'm a fan of Michael Bogdanov's work and have been since he was associate director at what was then Newcastle's University Theatre more than thirty years ago.
So: two strikes in favour (the play and Bogdanov) and one against (the lack of Richard Burton!).
Poor Russell Gomer must have had to contend with being compared with Burton since he was first offered the part, so I'll say no more on the topic other than that he managed the seemingly impossible task of making the part his own and it was not long into the production that I ceased to hear Burton.
The big problem in staging Under Milk Wood is matching the action to the flow of the words, for they have a poetic rhythm which must be adhered to. If the action slows them down, the poetry is lost and the whole raison d'être of the play destroyed. If, on the other hand, movement is hurried, then it clashes with the words, with the same result. Here they meshed seamlessly. The set (designed by Ulrike Engelbrecht) is very simple, a fairly steeply raked rostrum fills most of the stage under which it is possible, at the upstage end, for the actors to pass, with a chair and table down right for the First Voice and a chair down left. It is just the right size for the eight actors to move around and position themselves at just the right speed to match the flow of the words.
Eight actors for sixty-odd parts? A seemingly impossible task but one which this ensemble of eight made look easy. Using just voice and body language (along with some occasional very amusing sound effects from the actors themselves), they move from character to character with never a suspicion of confusion being caused in the audience's minds.
The choreography - for such it is - is often quite intricate, and Bogdanov has supplemented the flow of the words with some well chosen (and beautifully sung in four part harmony a capella) Welsh songs and hymns - Myfanwy, Calon Lân, Ar Hyd y Nos and Cwm Rhondda among them.
Subtle lighting by Chris Ellis complements Bogdanov's tight direction and the performances of Gomer First Voice), Erica Eirian (Second Voice and other parts), and Llinos Daniel, Kathryn Dimery, Richard Nichols, Phylip Harries, Nickie Rainsford and Morgan Rhys (everybody else!). For me the whole production was a delight from beginning to end, and I was not alone in that , for the Newcastle audience clearly showed their appreciation too.
There is a fashion in some quarters of Welsh Theatre to denigrate Thomas and Under Milk Wood as evoking a sentimental and untrue picture of Welshness, and to do the same for Bogdanov, presumably because ... well, because he doesn't stay in wales and do plays in Welsh. The words "prophet", "honour" and "own country" spring to mind!
Steve Orme reviewed this production in Nottingham
"Under Milk Wood" plays at the Grand Theatre, Leeds, from 14th to 19th June, and the Alexandra, Birmingham, from 21st to 26th, when the tour ends.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan