Under Milk Wood
Stage 2 at Northern Stage, Newcastle
I’ve got to admit it—if this review (any review, indeed) is to have any value, it must be truthful—so I admit it: I love Under Milk Wood. I’ve loved it since I first heard the recording of the 1954 BBC radio production more than fifty years ago. I know it virtually off by heart. So, as you might guess, I was predisposed to enjoy this production.
Some people were a little unsure. Two people playing all those parts? Surely not. But then, Theatre Tours International’s Guy Masterson, for many years one of the leading producers at the Edinburgh Fringe, has been doing a one-man, totally uncut version for almost quarter of a century to huge acclaim. So I had no qualms there.
There are 69 characters. And what characters they are: Mr Waldo, the town drunk; Organ Morgan the organist—“it’s organ, organ all the time with him,” complains his wife bitterly; Polly Garter who accurately says, “nothing grows in my garden but washing. And babies”; the naïve and gentle poet the Rev Eli Jenkins who welcomes the day with a poem and bids it farewell with another; blind Captain Cat who listens to the life of the street while remembering the companions of his “sailoring days, long, long ago.” And more, so many more ordinary and yet unique people, all brought lyrically to life by Thomas’s poetic prose.
We start in the night-time in Llareggub, “starless and bible-black”. We eavesdrop on the inhabitants’ dreams and listen as the town gradually comes awake. We follow them through the day until finally night falls again and “the suddenly wind-shaken wood springs awake for the second dark time this one spring day.”
What director Elayce Ismail (whose previous work for Northern Stage was the very successful The War of the Worlds) has done is take a very 21st century approach to a very mid-20th century play.
It’s played in-the-round and there’s a microphone next to a props table for the actors to create sound effects in the old radio style, but there are also sound recordings, both effects and voices, there are video recordings of sea and landscapes and of animals to enhance the mood and an occasional live video feed from an overhead camera pointing straight down onto the stage area, all projected onto the back walls at two opposite sides of the stage.
And the Voice of the Guidebook comes from a slightly old fashioned battery-powered radio—a nice touch.
The two actors, Christina Berriman Dawson and David Kirkbride, move around the stage and the audience, drawing them in. Sometimes they interact with each other, as Mr and Mrs Pugh facing each other in the “cold air of the dining vault” or as Mr and Mrs Cherry Owen giggling and delighting in their relationship, or, quite the opposite, as Miss Myfanwy Price and Mr Mog Edwards carrying on their never to be consummated relationship by letter.
The modern techniques not only work but work well, because they don’t detract from the poetry but enhance it. It is the words which are important; visuals and physicality and theatrical techniques are secondary, supports to the poetry. Lighting (Andy Purves), sound (Richard Hammarton), film (Kris Deedigan) and the simple but effective design (Jen McGinley) all work together to focus our attention on those all-important words.
Yes, I’m afraid there is a “but”…
Director Ismail has chosen to have her actors speaking in North East accents, the idea being to call to mind the commonality between the small seaside towns of West Wales, of the Isle of Wight where she grew up and of the North East coast where she, and many in the audience, are now living. I can see her point and, I think, to a large extent it works, but the play, whilst gaining a certain universality, also loses something. Under Milk Wood is quintessentially Welsh—actually very firmly set in West Wales—with the accent’s lilt and rise and fall, with its Welsh sounds and reminders of the Welsh language, and the loss of that takes away something.
Or perhaps it’s just an old man mourning for his lost youth...
Good acting, though, and good ideas, beautifully paced.
Reviewer: Peter Lathan