“TO begin at the beginning”, it began, and with that short phrase we were hushed into silence, the house lights snapped off and a blue moonlit night took over the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack auditorium of Bath’s Theatre Royal, as the haunting welsh lilt of actor Owen Teale transported us back 60 years to a Spring day in the life of the small Welsh village of Llareggub. Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas, was first broadcast in America with Thomas as Voice One, the narrator, but quickly and most famously substituted for Richard Burton, more recently with Anthony Hopkins, and just this evening on BBC Wales with Michael Sheen, in a new all-star version full of famous Welsh actors and singers, from Tom to Griff Rhys Jones, and including tonight’s Voice One, Owen Teale.
Most recently known for roles in Stella and Game of Thrones, but also a seasoned member of the RSC and National over the years, Teale brings a warmth and friendliness to his part as narrator, a warmth he shares with Christian Patterson as Voice Two, and we are drawn in by Thomas’s poetry and the lilt of the Welsh accent, until all we want to know is what is going to happen next to these intriguing characters.
Nine other actors play all of the inhabitants of Llareggub, a town whose backwards name inspired Terry Pratchett to use the name Llamedos as a vaguely Welsh continent in his Discworld series of books. Four women play seventeen characters and five men play nineteen, as well as various groups of schoolchildren, gossips, etc., and every single character is distinguishable, whether by voice, walk, stance, or sometimes just a slightly different look, as we journey through this normal, ordinary day in the small village, and every sound we hear, from animal noises through children singing and clocks ticking, is made by this same group of actors, taking ensemble acting to a perfect extreme.
The costumes are simple, almost uniform, and no attempt is made to change or adapt this simple costume, which makes it all the more impressive when one character is imagining walking naked through the town, and another is describing her dark skin showing through her dress – it is all there, distinctly, in our imagination. Age is similarly irrelevant, with the same actor playing the oldest lady in the town, who shouts her age every morning, as well as one of the schoolgirls teasing the men for a kiss. Terry Hands, who has been Director of Theatre Clwyd since 1997, having run the RSC for two decades before that, has clearly worked extensively with his ensemble to develop the trust and relationships between not just the nine actors and two narrators, but also between every one of the thirty or more individual characters.
Martyn Bainbridge’s design is simple but highly effective: a huge three-dimensional disc representing the village, the hill and the harbour is mounted high behind the stage with the sun slowly traversing the upper half as the lighting changes through the day, and a simple arrangement of ramps and stairs circles the acting area, and the ensemble of eleven.
This is a magical, mesmerising production, and it is great to watch as well as to listen to, indeed, Theatre Clwyd have proved that this “play for voices” is also a very good play for physicality. Under Milk Wood is at Bath until Saturday, and on tour around England until July.