Of the myriad visions that spring to mind in Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, one of the most vivid is that of Thomas himself, sounding out syllables in his clifftop writing den, words words words splashed o’er wall and desk, and, through the windows, views of fields and farms and ferries, of Wharley Point and the River Taf and the rocky islands of Worms Head, and of a dozy little town in the misty distance...
Thomas evoked the scenery of his Welsh surrounds in Under Milk Wood, but, more than that, he captured the feeling of watching the ebb and flow of life from the other side of a window. A veritable symphony of language intended for the radio – its subtitle is ‘a play for voices’ – Under Milk Wood invites us too to observe life being lived in the backwater town of Llareggub.
But how to stage a radio play? How to convey to the eyes what was meant for the ears? How to make the invisible visible?
Sydney Theatre Company’s solution is to not set out to make the invisible visible. Director Kip Williams preserves the essential importance of the audience’s imagination, staging the action in a black, mostly bare space (design by Robert Cousins), in which characters slip in and out of the darkness as if figures in a dream.
It’s a fluid space that allows Thomas’s language the breathing room to work its gentle magic. The spell is cast in the show’s earliest moments, when Jack Thompson, besuited and solemnly lit (by Damien Cooper), approaches the edge of the unfurnished Drama Theatre stage and beckons the audience into the sleeping village with words alone: “Look . . . Listen . . . Come closer now.” Each new line is the glittering discovery Thomas intended it to be, via which we experience everything from the cooing of pigeons to the breeze blowing in from the harbour. Aurally it’s intoxicating.
Thompson’s narrator guides us along the cobbled streets of Llareggub and into an expanding web of more than 50 Llareggub residents. In fleeting scenes we visit the living quarters, the minds and the hearts of the old blind sea captain, the milkman, the farmer, the schoolteacher, the schoolchildren, the fishermen, the poet preacher, the church organist, the postman, the butcher, the baker... In short, we take in the splendid multifarious muck of life in an efficient hour and 40 minutes.
The work and Williams’s staging demands an ensemble in the truest sense of the word – and this cast turns every last character into a gem. Together, Paula Arundell, Drew Forsythe, Cameron Goodall, Sandy Gore (also the second narrator), Alan John (also the composer), Drew Livingston, Bruce Spence, Helen Thomson and youngster Alex Chorley (alternating with Ky Baldwin) display the vocal harmony of well practised choristers, but also the kind of complex interplay you’d expect of a contemporary dance troupe or sports team.
In Under Milk Wood, STC has produced an elegant, enthralling honouring of one of the great literary works of the twentieth century – a participatory theatrical journey that doesn’t require anyone to leave their seats.