You’ve probably heard of Dylan Thomas, if only because you once confused him with Bob Dylan, but know little, if anything, about the Welsh wordsmith. I stumbled across his work this summer when I visited Swansea, and fell in love with his dark wit, warped imagination, and mastery of the English language. It seems that the director of Brasenose Art’s Under Milk Wood feels similarly, for it is these features that she brings out in her vision of Thomas’ radio play.
This production eases the difficulty of staging a radio play by combining elements of radio and theatre. Two radio presenters sit centre-stage, where they read the narration and control the sound-effects, but the characters are acted separately by the rest of the cast. While on occasion the chosen actions do not best fit the lines, for the majority of the play the utilisation of space and physicality works well. Characters drift in and out of sight, sometimes acting out entire scenes complete with props, sometimes only to voice a line. The distinction between different characters, given this fluidity and the inevitable role-sharing, is impressive. Particularly pleasing are the Welsh accents consistently maintained by most of the cast. As I’m sure the director hoped, this combination of radio and theatre brings to life both the beauty of Thomas’ words, in the mesmerising voices of the radio presenters, and his characters in all their colour. Although the relationship between radio and theatre aspects is perhaps a little unclear at times, the presenters’ interactions with each other and the actors sometimes needing more definition, ultimately this staging choice gives the audience the best of both worlds. We are allowed to see the play physically come to life, but space is still left for imagination.
The unusual choice of Brasenose Chapel for the staging of this production is, with the minor exception of the discomfort of pews, an extremely successful one. The small, intimate space makes the audience a part of the community of Milk Wood. The space is used well, allowing for small costume changes which are vital to differentiating individual characters. It also adds to the sense of Thomas’ characters being brought to life by the words of the radio presenters, appearing and disappearing as they speak. Flickering candlelight adds to the intimacy, and the lights being brightened and dimmed as the narrators introduce the break of day and the fall of night is a clever touch.
Regardless of everything else, Under Milk Wood is essentially storytelling, and when the story is as good as Thomas’ is, extra elements become secondary. This production is dark, beautiful and funny and more than a little bizarre, which is exactly how Thomas would have wanted it.