Intended as a play for voices, directors who stage Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood face the challenge of animating a text which offers them minimal guidance. Victoria Gawlik should be proud of creating a visually compelling performance which moved nimbly between the disjointed vignettes that make up the play. Transition sequences were polished despite the fact that the company had been forced into the unfamiliar space of University College Chapel as a result of adverse weather conditions.
The piece dramatises the experience of life in an obscure welsh fishing-town, the ironically named Llareggub (try saying it backwards). The narrow corridor of the chapel floor created a fitting sense of claustrophobia, and the limited space amplified the effect of choral choreographed sequences, in which characters absorbed in their own activities weaved amongst each other. These street scenes cleverly illustrated the process of situating a private self within the wider communal structures of a tight-knit community. The audience, seated facing one another on either side of the stage, contributed to the sense of surveillance which arose from displays of judgement, suspicion and gossip, typical of this small town.
I was impressed by Gawlik’s ability to successfully signal the transition between psychological and physical spaces. The scenes in which Captain Tom Cat (Francis Kerrigan) shared moments of intimacy with his dead lover (Anousha Al-Masud) were particularly moving; a blue spotlight was the only cue needed to signify our entrance into a private mental space. The abrupt manner in which these interactions were initiated reminded us that the dead are never far from the characters within this play; they intrude upon the narrative to govern the behaviour of the living. Adam Diaper also deserves a mention for his roles as both Reverend Eli Jenkins and Mrs Dai Bread Two. The contrast between the two characters demanded variations in tone, movement and comportment, which were conveyed effortlessly to great comedic effect.
The narrators (Meg Harrington and Conrad Will) should both be commended for getting to grips with the intricate language of Thomas’ poetry, reciting it with great fluency. However, there was a consistent problem with projection, perhaps as a result of being unfamiliar with the acoustic in the chapel. At times, when concentrating on their upcoming lines, nuance was lacking from their delivery meaning the musical lyricism of Thomas’ words was lost. This criticism could be applied to various cast members; whilst it is unrealistic for a company of 14 to successfully portray 50 distinct voices, the task demands melodrama. The performance of minor characters was sometimes timid, meaning that they fell to the wayside. A play set over a brief 24 hour period requires fast paced movement, but more time should have been taken to exploit the comic potential of these sketches.
Overall, the performance showed great potential and can boast moments of true brilliance. It is a testament to the entire cast that they pulled off such a slick opening run despite their unexpected removal to the chapel. However, whilst many characters shone some fell flat, and at times the restless motion on stage detracted from narrative clarity.