Originally written as a radio play narrated Richard Burton, Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood presents an intimate portrait of the residents of the fictional Welsh town of Llareggub. Set over the course of a single day, the innermost thoughts, dreams and desires of a procession of bizarre, lost and grotesque characters are pieced together to create a richly poetic word collage.
Staging such a work is no easy job, especially if you only have the budget for two actors, neither of whom are Welsh. But Elayce Ismail is more than equal to the task. Her new production for Northern Stage is an intimate in-the-round studio piece that immerses the audience in the ebb and flow of Thomas’s vivid prose through a mix of live action and recorded sound and film.
Sensibly avoiding attempts at Welsh accents, English performers Christina Berriman Dawson and David Kirkbride are joint narrators, breathlessly guiding the audience through the streets of Llareggub, while most of the characters are experienced as recorded voices.
Initially, the reliance on this device suggests Ismail has struggled to unshackle Under Milk Wood from its radio drama origins. However, as the production progresses, the onstage action and pre-recorded material knit together to create a satisfying theatrical experience.
This is especially the case when Berriman Dawson and Kirkbirde take on the roles of some of the characters and interact seamlessly with the disembodied voices. The most poignant moment comes when Kirkbride as blind Captain Cat talks with his lost love Rosie Probert who fades into silence as if she’d never existed.
Kris Deedigan’s film-scape, meanwhile, adds an extra dimension, the lingering images of farmed landscapes and the sea, nicely complementing the hypnotic rhythms of Thomas’ language.