Circa Theatre’s “Under Milk Wood” a vital and rumbustious celebration of “LLareggub”

Circa Theatre presents:
A play for voices by Dylan Thomas

Featuring: Kathleen Burns, Jeff Kingsford-Brown, Simon Leary,
Carmel McGlone, Gavin Rutherford

and the voices of Jeffrey Thomas and John Bach

Directed by Ross Jolly
Music composed by Gareth Farr
Audio-Visual design by Joanna Sanders
Costume design – Sheila Horton
Lighting Design – Marcus McShane
Set design – Andrew Foster

Circa One, Circa Theatre, Wellington

Saturday, 13th October, 2018

People who grew up with the sounds of the voices of either Dylan Thomas himself, or of Welsh actor Richard Burton, as the “First Voice” on any of the two recordings of Thomas’s verse-play “Under Milk Wood” that were available in New Zealand from the 1950s, were given the work pretty much as its author would have expected it to be performed – as a play for voices, to be read and “acted” with voices alone, the parts distributed in live stage performances among five readers (though the Burton recording used instead over twenty individual voices with only a few duplicated actor-roles, every one a distinctively “Welsh” voice).

A later, 1988 recording, featuring this time Anthony Hopkins as the principal narrator, also used a near- entirely Welsh cast, mostly one-voice-to-a-part, the producers taking the opportunity to employ several “star” entertainers  in certain roles to add prestige to the venture – though this had the unfortunate effect of bringing into play commercialised singing-styles and accompaniments completely at odds with the play’s rural village setting and its homespun characters, tempting one into labelling the production (complete with its soupy symphony orchestra-played sequences) as “Over-Milked Wood”.

I hadn’t previously seen (or heard) any “live” performance of the play, read or staged, before encountering this production, and so it took me a while to get into its “swing”, though my initial reaction was delight at both the imaginatively-conceived video backdrop settings in tandem with the use of Gareth Farr’s sensitively-contrived music, light-years from the all-purpose sugary sounds that for me helped to disfigure the Hopkins recording! But I was dismayed by the use of recorded voices for the two principal narrators,  neither of whose voice was captured with any great “personality” –  whether this was the fault of the recording process (which seemed to lack any real immediacy – ought not at least the “First Voice” have a quality of dream-like music sounding inside one’s head?) or the somewhat unvaried tones of the readers, I’m not sure.

Whatever the case, things “came alive” with actor Jeff Kingsford-Brown’s evocation of the blind sea-captain, Captain Cat, the production wisely leaving the recorded voices behind for significant periods and giving much of the accompanying narrations to the actors themselves, sometimes speaking their own introductions, sometimes working in tandem with others. Kingsford-Brown’s calling up from the dead of his dream-ghosts gave us a wonderful “Samuel Beckett” moment, the figures rising from the depths of the subconscious (i.e. behind a screen), an effect which conveyed the other-worldly quality of the writing most hauntingly.

To go meticulously through the whole play, sequence by sequence, would be to suffocate some of its wonderment and spontaneity – even now when listening I find certain sequences “come upon me” as if by surprise, either in wraith-like fashion or with rude, cut-to-the-chase vigour. On the Circa stage the five actors maintained a tireless fluidity of movement and characterisation, in a sense “reinterpreting” the playwright’s original conception as something heard which then stimulated the imagination. Here, much more than sounding the words was done for the listener/observer, the actors literally embodying their roles, characterising at least as much with gesture, movement and costume.

I feel impelled to get this off my chest early, so as to concentrate on what the production and its actors DID do. Presenting the play with actors in costume moving about a stage gave people like myself a vastly different experience to that by which we first encountered the work. I thought it a true “swings-and-roundabouts” scenario, with the “stage movement” approach externalising the characterisations, giving them a vivid, readily accessible quality, the drawback being for me that the playwright’s words lost a lot of their power and beauty.

With speakers using the words to convey every inflection, emphasis, variation and colour of Thomas’s richly-endowed language, one was literally swamped with sensation of a kind that engaged the listener’s imagination, and worked in tandem with it to recreate time, and incident. Here, by contrast, were actors, by dint of being able to convey so much with their physical presence, far less meticulous and more cavalier with the words’ potential for evocation. The “Welsh” flavour of the voices, too, was a hit-and-miss affair, being at times something of an amalgam of British rural accents,  for me somewhat blurring the dimension of the scenario’s at once lyrical and earthy exoticism.

That said, under director Ross Jolly’s fluid guidance, the “dramatis personae” of the town of Llareggub wholeheartedly launched themselves into our imagined village-world with gusto and elan. Following Captain Cat’s evocations we found Kathleen Burns and Gavid Rutherford as Myfanwy Price and her lover, Mog Edwards dreaming of one another. Rutherford’s focused blandishments were a delight, such as “I will warm the sheets like an electric toaster”, and Burns played to her lover’s obsession with money with “a wallet of forget-me-not blue, for the money, to be comfy”. The couple’s final meeting at the play’s other end was also heart-rendingly brought off with a beautifully-staged misalliance of bodies as Mog turned to hug his money instead of his disappointed but always-hopeful Mfanwy.

Rutherford also gave us a superb Mr Waldo, the voice savouring the words spoken to his disapproving late wife – “Hush, love, hush – I’m widower Waldo, now”, and the subject of  gossip which I thought less effective delivered by a couple, than, in Thomas’s original, a pair of gossips – the reproving “Using language” was but one example of somewhat bland characterisation, which should have reminded us all of our old-fashioned maiden aunts, but didn’t quite, here. But later, the naughtiest, most suggestive song of the evening had to be Waldo’s reminiscing “Come and sweep my chimbley”, sung by Rutherford with engaging “nudge-wink glee” in the Sailor’s Arms with an actively participating audience!

Kathleen Burns also winningly played the susceptible Polly Garter, loving anybody back who will give her the babies she adores, but reminding us constantly of her one true love, “little Willie Wee who is six feet deep”. While singing Polly’s music, Burns’ voice did drift perilously close to an Andrew Lloyd Webber-like singing delivery at times, a manner at odds, I thought, with a rural Welsh village ambience – but she remained on the side of the Llareggyb angels when not forcing her tones and allowing us to properly “eavesdrop” on her singing.

Her versatility produced a winsome Milly Smalls beautifully at odds with herself when looking in the mirror – “Oh, there’s a face! – Where’d you get that hair from? – Got it from an old tom cat!”, a querulous and volatile  Mrs. Cherry Owen, an ingenuous Mrs Dai Bread One, especially so in the lovely “crystal ball” scene with her “menage a trois” partner, Mrs Dai Bread Two (McGlone), and a “martyr(ed) to music” Mrs Organ Morgan, dealing with her “head in the clouds” organ -playing husband (Simon Leary) who turns a deaf ear to her gossip, while thinking of Bach and Palestrina!

Leary’s most riotous undertaking was that of the insouciant Willy-Nilly Postman, who opened everybody’s mail (with the help beforehand of the scheming, steaming Mrs Willy-Nilly), telling Mr Mog Edwards that Miss Mfanwy Price loves him with all her heart, and Mr Waldo that he’s getting another paternity summons, and afterwards spreading the gossip accordingly. By contrast, the same actor’s shifty, shameless Nogood Boyo appeared and disappeared as mysteriously as the Cheshire Cat, even taking us out rowing in the bay with him at one point, and then treating us to a sublimely delivered, profoundly ultimate existentialist statement of being.

As Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard, asleep with two dead husbands at her side, Carmel McGlone gave the character a sweetness which masked her character’s determination that occasionally bubbled to the surface – her “Tell me your tasks, in order” was steeled ever so subtly by reminders such as “And before you let the sun in, mind it wipes its shoes!” From such a benign dictatorship with her two deceased subjects Gavin Rutherford and Jeff Kingsford-Brown, both in thrall to her and her directions, McGlone moved easily to the controlled viciousness of Mrs Pugh, whose husband, Mr Pugh, played by Kingsford-Brown enacted a Doctor Crippen-like double game of surface imperturbability and secret murderous passion – it wasn’t his fault that he found himself telling us he was taking the breakfast UP to his wife while walking DOWN the onstage stairs! – the onus was on we in the audience at that point, to reimagine the world!

Kingsford-Brown’s most moving “Captain Cat” moment, of course was his realisation that the memory of his “one great love”, Rosie Probert, was receding into the dark, Rosie (Carmel McGlone) herself telling the old man “what he already knows” – a superb piece of tragic writing from Thomas. While I still prefer the plainer, starker spoken version of the exchange between man and ghost, the “semi-sung” treatment of “What seas did you see” given here was beautifully “choreographed” by both Kingsford-Brown and McGlone, causing “water to come in me eye”, at the end of it all.

There were as many such vignettes I haven’t commented on, merely wanting to convey with the above descriptions something of the presentation’s flavour. Johanna Sanders’ Audio-visual designs and Gareth Farr’s music I’ve already described on as evocative and appropriate, while Sheila Horton’s costumes struck me as entirely apposite to the characters’ situations. Andrew Foster’s set gave the character’s movements plenty of helpful levels to work at, as well as wry concealments as required, while the different atmospheres were beautifully evoked by Marcus McShane’s lighting.

So – a beautiful, and in places funny, quirky and moving, realisation by Ross Jolly with the help of his team, a venture well worthy of attention.
(Circa One, until November 10th)


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