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Review: Under Milk Wood @ Northern Stage

Written by Arts, Theatre

‘A play for voices’. That’s the subheading for Dylan Thomas’ play Under Milk Wood, currently on at
Northern Stage.

In its most literal sense, the subheading points out that the play was originally
written as a radio drama. But it also highlights the emphasis put upon voice and more generally
sound in the play.

Thomas himself wanted audiences who saw or heard the play to feel that they had “come to know
the town as an inhabitant of it” by the end. The stage was set up in the round, with speakers
overhead and at opposing sides of the circle. Recordings of voices gossiping, singing and the
general sounds of Llareggub, the imaginary town where Thomas sets his play, circle around the
audience, blurring the lines between stage and seats. It felt as though the two actors were our
storytellers, and we the townspeople.

Northern Stage’s production played upon the fact that it was originally a radio drama
through showing the audience various wonderful ways foley sound effects are made using
inanimate objects. This transparency around how sound effects were made didn’t distract or ‘break
the world’ of the play at all. If anything it made the play more interesting by giving its audience an
insight into audio production they aren’t usually granted.

Coming from a long line of fervently Welsh people from the very same town as Thomas, I
am passionate about how quintessentially Welsh Under Milk Wood is. It was a bold move for
director Elayce Ismail to eradicate the characters’ Welsh accents. Saying that, translating the piece
into Geordie accents with the occasional Scottish and Yorkshire thrown in there worked well. There
is a shared sense of the North East and Wales as slightly out-of-the-way, forgotten corners of the
U.K. Safe to say, I felt right at home in this Geordie-speaking welsh seaside town.

The accents also share a singsong quality which is perfectly suited to the singsong nature
of Thomas’ traditionally poetic writing. Although, at times it was hard to follow exactly what was
being said. Thomas’ quick wit, wordplay and alliteration is hard enough to understand in your
standard English access, let alone Geordie. The play works like Shakespeare in this respect;
you’re not always sure what’s being said, but you know what’s going on. Sometimes it was ok to
just sit back, tune out of what was being said for a while and focus on the steady paced tune of the
words, using the actors’ expressions and gestures to discern what was happening.

In a play with such a wide variety of characters, the two actors held up the whole production
brilliantly. Both Christina Berriman Dawson and David Kirkbride played a broad range of
characters, seamlessly switching between each one. A particular favourite duo had to be stifflipped
Mrs. Pew and her repressed, murder-conspiring husband. The way the two snapped
between short silence and explosive anger was hilarious to watch – just one example of the great
diversity of both actors.

Northern Stage’s Under Milk Wood manages to maintain the traditional and regional feel of
the piece, whilst still updating the production into a work which explores the boundaries of live
performance and theatrical spaces. Funny, witty and a perfect reminder of home. This play makes
you want to return to the Welsh seaside town you never knew.

“What did you think of that then?” Asked the man sat next to me as soon as the production
finished. “Pretty great” I said, “Yeah, can’t say I had a clue what was going on” – he said “but great.
It was great!”

Last modified: 27th November 2018

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