First published on 9 May 2012. Updated on 21 May 2012.
Jack, Sandy, Under Milk Wood is subtitled ‘A Play for Voices’. Clearly your experience as performers has taught you wield your voices in a way that is beyond us mere mortals…
Jack Thompson: I’m sure that’s true. The use of the voice in conversation, the speaking of poetry, the reading aloud that occurred in almost every living room in our society before radio – all of that is less now. The actor is more and more the representative of the oral tradition. [forcefully] Our words can take you there, [gently] and then take you there, [naturally] and take you there… just by the modulation of a sound.
Right at the heart of Shakespeare is Hamlet’s invitation to “speak the speech”. Just say the words. The words will inform you how they should be said.
Sandy Gore: Someone I respected and adored when I was in my twenties was a very fine musician who played many instruments. I said to him one day, “What’s your favourite instrument?” And he said, “The human voice, and don’t you ever forget it.” That’s held me in good stead ever since. It’s the greatest form of communication that we have.
How do you prepare your voices for performance?
SG: Every morning I do about five minutes’ worth in the car. Pre-show each night, you do a vocal warm-up. You can’t ever come in, open your mouth and warm up as the show progresses. You’ve got to be ready. It was the same with Uncle Vanya. Cate Blanchett’s vocal warm-ups could be heard in the Colosseum.
JT: A half-hour of preparation, yes. It’s essential, really.
SG: Under Milk Wood is very much an ensemble piece too, so if someone drops the ball, metaphorically, you’ve got to work very hard to get them back again.
JT: There’s an energy in the language – but it has to be lived. It has to come to life. And unless we’re all doing it, and a part of this one stream of life, then it won’t be there on stage. Everyone knows that a play is only as good as the person who is the least good in the play...
So who’s that? No, I’m kidding.
SG: That has yet to be determined!
JT: It’ll be different on different nights… What you aim for, of course, is that everyone is so good that you don’t see any weakness. What you see is excellence and greater excellence. I go to work, and my darling of 40 years says, “Be fantastic.” That’s the criterion. No good being vaguely interesting, or doing your best, or any of those other invitations. Be fantastic.
SG: As fantastic as you can be. You can be good or you can be bad. Being boring is a cardinal sin.
What is this production actually going to look like?
JT: The staging of this play needs to be a sort of an oblique reference to the subtext and not an illustration of what’s being talked about. If you’re actually illustrating what’s being talked about, it’s like giving dialogue to Marcel Marceau. It’s superfluous. In fact, there was a film made of it with Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Peter O’Toole, and you can see why that film didn’t really work – they’ve dramatised every one of these moments, imposing this image on it. Either stop telling me what I’m looking at, Richard Burton, or stop showing me what you’re talking about!
So we have movement on the stage, but not a physical illustration of it. It’s more choreography than it is a dramatisation.
What’s Under Milk Wood about? Richard Burton said it was about religion, death and sex.
SG: It’s about life, isn’t it? A day in the life of this little fishing village.
JT: It’s just one day, but it’s all there. It’s a very rich day. It’s a description of a place that Dylan Thomas loved, a way of life that he loved, that he came from.
It’s full of fabulous jokes. It’s not a heavy piece at all. But that’s not to say there aren’t moments when your heart goes out to certain characters and to his description of an aspect of life. The rest of it is this mad lot of people bumbling through life.
Theatre is an act of imagination, but this production in particular really depends on the images we conjure in our minds. How vivid is the imagery in your own minds?
SG: The imagery is so vivid that you can’t not think about it when you’re saying it. It’s wondrous.
JT: Yes, it is. It’s poetry: you’re not saying it’s six-by-four, yellow and oblong – you’re describing the feeling. It’s this living thing, this internal life that you’re describing. It’s very vivid, and it demands you give it all your attention as an actor.
And as an audience.
And every member of the audience will be imagining something slightly different.
JT: It’s perfectly crafted in the first place to create all of these images for you, the listener to that voice, creating that image. It’s like reading a book – everyone creates their own very particular, very individual image…
SG: And then you see the film made of the book, and you go, "No, I’m sorry, she’s not blonde, she’s a brunette!" Because you’ve done that work. This is not dissimilar to that.