Under Milk Wood

Court One, Christchurch

23/02/2008 - 22/03/2008

Production Details

Sound And Vision In Thomas’ Final Play 

It is commonly reported that Dylan Thomas wrote his final play UNDER MILK WOOD as a response to the Hiroshima bombings "to reassert the evidence of beauty in the world". Over fifty years after it was first read in New York in 1953 -six months before Thomas’ untimely death – the lyrical power and gentle humour of this magical play continues to enchant and delight audiences.

Set in the fictional seaside Welsh village of Llareggub (itself a subtle poke at Thomas’ Welsh origins: the town name is "bugger-all" spelled backwards), UNDER MILK WOOD opens by asking the audience to listen and discover the dreams of the slumbering townsfolk. As dawn breaks on a spring day, we are asked to look as the villagers wake and go about their lives, before returning once more to slumber at the close of the play.

"The play has a magical, surreal quality," says Geraldine Brophy, who returns to The Court Theatre to direct UNDER MILK WOOD following 2006’s Doubt. "Thomas’ script creates a world where, through the rich rhetoric of language, images are earthy and ripe, tender, infused at once with humour and a knowingness that explodes our imaginative resources. We have tried to embody this in our production."

To this end, renowned New Zealand artist John Reynolds makes his stage design debut to conceive an environment that combines netting, stepladders and various other domestic items into an almost ethereal place, encapsulating the world of a small tightly-knit community on the cusp of spring. Local musician Hamish Oliver creates original music that expands upon the magic weaved by Thomas’ poetically lyrical text, complemented with lighting design by Associate of The Court (a title recognising years of outstanding service to the theatre) Joe Hayes.

Grounding the more otherworldly elements are the characters and content of UNDER MILK WOOD, which Brophy describes as "universal, recognisable and sexy. Greed, lust, envy, spite, love and desire fill the hearts, minds and dreams of the village inhabitants."

Playing the multitude of characters – from children, town gossips and aged sea captains to more mystical ghosts and mysterious "voices" guiding the audience through Llarregub – is what Brophy describes as a "dream cast" featuring Paul Barrett (an Associate of The Court in a welcome return after several years based in the North Island) and fellow Associate Yvonne Martin, with Elsie Edgerton-Till, David McPhail, Eilish Moran and Tom Trevella. Each actor has been "more than up to the task of imbuing each character with humour, honesty and integrity" says Brophy. "A fluid, magical style with well-grounded, universally recognisable themes ensures UNDER MILK WOOD remains an enchanting experience". 

UNDER MILK WOOD casts its spell in Court One from 23 February – 22 March. 

Venue:  The Court Theatre, Christchurch
Cast:  Paul Barrett, Elsie Edgerton-Till, Yvonne Martin, David McPhail, Eilish Moran and Tom Trevella 
Production Dates:  23 February – 22 March 2008 
Performance times:  6pm Monday / Thursday; 7:30pm Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday (no show Sundays).  2pm matinee Saturday
Tickets:  Adults $37, Senior Citizens $32, Tertiary Students $23, School Children $15, Group discount $31 
Bookings:  The Court Theatre, 20 Worcester Boulevard; 963 0870 or www.courttheatre.org.nz

Paul Barrett
Yvonne Martin
Elsie Edgerton-Till
David McPhail
Eilish Moran
Tom Trevella

2 hrs 5 mins, incl. interval

The voice of all humanity

Review by Lindsay Clark 28th Feb 2008

Four days into its season this enterprising production has settled to a nicely calibrated fleshing out of one of literature’s best known villages. Designed originally for radio, it is rich in sound and imagery, fresh but familiar characters and affectionate humour. It is indeed, as quoted in the programme notes, ‘a lusty, love-and-death-haunted microcosm of man and nature’.

The challenge of translating this word portrait into visual terms for a contemporary audience, accustomed to seeing rather than listening, is huge. Direction, the creative team and cast measure up confidently so that this one spring day in Milk Wood evolves from pre-dawn to the next darkness without losing a heartbeat of its essential humanity.

Director Geraldine Brophy, making a welcome return to The Court, will be remembered for the many memorable roles she played herself on the same wide shallow stage. Her insight into the constraints and strengths of the space as well as her clear understanding that the extravagantly colourful language of the play needed to ‘play the lead’, shapes it into a fluid and absorbing piece.

It is narrated and reflective, with characters identified as they add this glimpse or that to the portraits of village characters developed over the slow day, with conscious and sub-conscious images swirling around in generous abundance. Without a sequenced story as such, the play calls for the ensemble to provide the drive and energy associated with conventional plot lines, as well as developing several characters each. To their credit they do and the voice of Dylan Thomas becomes the voice of all humanity, all times and places where nature can still be recognised. 

The  main narration, heralding the shift from one to the next, setting a scene, a tone, an irony even, is carried by Paul Barrett  (how good to see him and hear him at Court again ) and the splendid Yvonne Martin. Without descending into sententious excess, they ride the language purposefully, allowing the human portraiture to be coloured in as steadily, as inevitably as the woods and shore change with the day and the season.

The vocal ‘palette’ of the ensemble is also important of course, along with the ability to carry a haunting song and give substance to the wide assortment of humanity living and breathing and dying here. Eilish Moran, Tom Trevella, David McPhail and Elsie Edgerton-Till complete the team to present Thomas’s unforgettable Welsh village.

They are supported by excellent design from the production team with set (John Reynolds) and lighting (Joe Hayes) at once playful and functional. To Pamela Jones (costume design) fell the job of providing the gear to distinguish but not intrude, to give clues to characters but not dictate them. As in all aspects of this production the result is admirable. 

Ultimately the play stands as a creative tribute to a classic gem of the language. For me, it is inevitably distanced dramatically by the same rich current of words, a reminder of a time when we were more ready to listen. For all that, perhaps because of that, it is a play everyone who values the power of language should see.


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