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September 4, 2006 | by  | in Theatre | [ssba]

Under Milk Wood

Imagine taking a leisurely stroll through a small, isolated, seaside town and being able to see into the homes, minds and hearts of the occupants, to be able to see the true extent of their various eccentricities rather than just being able to muse on them. Under Milk Wood allows us to do this. It makes it possible for the audience to sit back and watch the eccentric lives of the inhabitants of Llareggub unfold. “From where you are,” the audience are told, “you can hear their dreams.”

When I attended Under Milk Wood we were in what seemed to be the dead of winter – it was cold and wet and I felt groggy and awful. Set on a bright spring day (much like the one that is distracting me from outside of my window as I write) it considerably freshened up the night. It is the essence of spring: the characters, I should probably be referring to them as inhabitants, are bright, optimistic and cheerful. They are, like us at this very moment, coming out of their winter slumps and are aided by generous doses of vitamin D.

Under Milk Wood is extremely text driven. There are no directions on the script at all (other than what is spoken of course), and the text is extremely lyrical and poetic. To do it justice the cast need to put in an extraordinary amount of effort. The characters are all over the top satirical representations of real people. From Captain Cat, the beleaguered old man, to Polly Garter, the town strumpet, these are all real and recognizable people. This is in spite of, or possibly because of, the cast’s over the top delivery of them. In a way, it is a stage version of Little Britain or The League of Gentlemen set about fifty years ago. While much of the comedy is derived from the characters and their interaction there is also a strong current of jet black comedy, much darker than what mainstream writers would be able to get away with now. Bigamy and partnerswapping pop up frequently and are described in extremely matter of fact ways: “I’m Tom-Fred the donkey-man… we shared the same girl once … her name was Mrs Probert…” But this is hardly as shocking or disturbing as the next line that introduces the aforementioned Mrs Probert: “Rosie Probert, thirty three Duck Lane. Come on up, boys, I’m dead.”

The casting of Under Milk Wood was spot on. All of the actors did complete justice to the various parts they were playing (a ration of four actors to sixty nine characters can be both difficult for the cast and confusing for the audience) without having to resort to cheesy character change devices like hats, wigs and beards. They glided between characters seamlessly and were able to convey the essence of each character in such a way as to prevent any sort of audience confusion.

Ray Henwood began the play with the captivating opening monologue, intricately describing the sleeping “lulled and dumbfound town” before transforming into his first and primary character Captain Cat. His performance of all his characters, but this one in particular, is genuine and lovely. While Cat could easily be described as a museum piece, even in Thomas’s time, Henwood delivers him in a way that makes him loveably so. Captain Cat is something to hold on to for as long as possible: in spite of his faults he is infinitely cherishable.

Jude Gibson is most enjoyable as a raft of bolshy, matriarchal characters such as Mrs Beynon, Mrs Pugh and Mrs Dai Bread number 2 (yes, there is also a number 1). While these characters can all be described similarly they are all separate and distinct personalities and Gibson never confuses them for the audience. It is fun to watch three women go about manipulating their world in three completely different ways. Despite being written by a man, Under Milk Wood can almost be seen as a feminist play for it is women who really drive and control the town… maybe it’s just being realistic?

Loren Horsley as Polly Garter was extremely fun to watch. Earlier in this piece I referred to Garter as a ‘strumpet’ in an effort to be polite (well, in an effort to use antiquated words to create the guise of being polite) she could also more aptly be described as the town bike. As a result, the role she plays within Llareggub is extremely interesting, most akin to the way we treated girls reputed to be loose in high school. The women both despise, pity and admire her – a weird combination of emotions. The men (and boys) only see her as good for one thing. And neither group is subtle about it. This creates an interesting niche for Garter to exist in but it unfortunately stifles her ability to become anything other than what the other townspeople expect her to be. Horsley’s wonderful performance centers on her ability to coveys this unease in the character gracefully, in turn creating a character that the audience can empathize with instantly.

While I have always acknowledged Tim Spite as an excellent actor, his performance in Under Milk Wood is the first one of his that I have genuinely enjoyed. His performance of a myriad of characters is cheerful and amazingly engaging. Under Milk Wood has forced him to hone his talent in performing many characters at once so that rather than being manic, he makes the most out of each character by performing them individually. This is evidence of both director Rachel More’s talents for direction but also to Spite. He is finally doing justice to his relentless talent.

Unlike most productions, one of the last things for the audience to notice is the set. The fade up at the beginning of the show is so gradual and Henwood’s opening monologue so compelling that you hardly even notice it happening. When the lights do come up, the stage is protected by a semi-transparent sheet of white gauze. Through it, one can see what is happening but not quite make out the details. It is if you are in a dream. This is fitting, because the screen, we come to realize, is the veil of night through which we are first introduced to the inhabitants of Llareggub.

It is absolutely enchanting to watch the characters dreams and it is also somewhat voyeuristic, ok – extremely voyeuristic, because we have yet to actually meet the characters to whom these dreams are attached. When the set is revealed in its entirety, almost a third of the way through the play, the audience is finally introduced to the landscape of Llareggub that is almost a character in its own right. It is distinctly maritime, with ropes, barrels, hammocks strewn across the set. It is also extremely homely and welcoming, with interior furniture and some of the most beautiful, old fashioned radios coming to symbolize the inhabitants’ living spaces – a fitting homage to the fact Under Milk Wood started out as a radio play.

This was also played upon further by Michael Nicolas Williams, the play’s musical director. In keeping with the radio play feel to the show he provided all of the music and sound effects for the show live, in much the same way that that musicians of yore scored old time radio plays. For example – to recreate the sound of one character relieving himself, water is poured from one glass into another, it was amazingly realistic. This added considerably to the feel and depth of the show in a beautiful, organic way.

Under Milk Wood is an amazingly well thought out and delivered play. While it is extremely parochial it is almost universally understandable. By the end of it you will love and understand each character, what they do and how they do it. The cast are able to hold the audiences attention with ease for the two and a bit hours of the show. It is one of the best and most moving pieces of theatre I have ever seen. There is only just under a week left so it would pay to get along soon.

By Dylan Thomas
Directed by Rachel More

Downstage Theatre
12 August – 9 September


About the Author ()

HAILING FROM the upper-middle- class hell of Havelock North, Jules is in the final semester of a bachelor’s degree in Trenchermanship (majoring in Gourmandry), is a self-professed Anarcho-Dandy and resides in the Aro Valley. He likes to spend his days pursuing whimsical follies of every sort and his evenings gallivanting through the bars and restaurants of Wellington in search of the perfect wine list. He has unfailingly dedicated his life to the excessive consumption of food and drink (despite having no discernable way of paying for it), and expects to die of simultaneous heart and kidney failure at thirty-nine. His only hope is that very soon people will start to pay him for his opinions (of which he is endowed with aplenty). Jules has a penchant for vintage Oloroso.

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