Not Wholly Bad or Good: Under Milk Wood

Originally written as a ‘play for voices’, the fictional seaside town of Llareggub has nevertheless been hoisted into the visual realm on more than one occasion.

Known for it’s rich, evocative and frequently spellbindingly surreal wordplay, an endless range of BBC adaptations, films, one-person shows, ballets, operas and even a 1992 animation have brought the startling and quintessentially English residents of Llareggub (read it backwards) to life, yet they were first introduced to the world in a performance at The Poetry Center on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in May 1953.

In choosing a return to the stage for this latest take on the oft-told tale, the stated intent of director Elayce Ismail is “to focus on the act of listening, allowing Thomas’ richly evocative words the space to breathe and fire the imagination.”

We become entirely engulfed in the vast personal cosmologies within these people

Guided into this space then by hale and hearty narrators Christina Berriman Dawson and David Kirkbride, we journey with the characters across the course of one full day in this no-where never-when, a place echoed in writer Nick Inman’s likening of Middle England to J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, in that “we know everything about it except where it is.”


Joining them first in swirling pre-dawn dreams, we hop awake and find ourselves bouncing from resident to resident. Variously enduring portentous sermons, riding alongside postmen on their rounds, eavesdropping on ever-more sinister spousal conversations, begrudgingly bearing maudlin drunkards, mourning lost loves and futures denied, sidestepping sin, we become entirely engulfed in the vast personal cosmologies within these people, simple folk who, not wholly bad or good, live their lives under Milk Wood.

Sharing the staggeringly dense script between then and bringing to rude life this wild – yet never entirely unrealistic – array of grotesques, Dawson and Kirkbride astonish. Wrapping their tounges deftly around the startling and surrealistic wordplay with nary a break, they relish in every tic and fret of the characters they conjure, building between them a wholly-believable bucolic universe through sheer force of will.

There and mostly-bare then surrounded by the audience, the actors are stripped of their authority

With the production taking place in the round, the scant few props include, cutely, a radio revealed from under an audience member’s seat at one point playing the Dylan Thomas-starring original version of the show, captured via a happenstance tape recording at that 1953 New York debut. The only known performance featuring Thomas as part of the cast, this curate’s egg pre-empted a full studio recording thwarted by the death of Thomas a mere six months later.

eyes milkwood

There and mostly-bare then surrounded by the audience, the actors are stripped of their authority, the audience compelled to be by turns engaged, overwhelmed and ignored by the pair as they flit and flap wraith-like between and around the spectators.

As they skitter about the room, delightfully rich soundbeds are created through props, lips and a looper pedal, while giant screens bracket the stage. Complementing a surprising amount of action through vivid, broiling imagery, overhead live-camerawork also comes into play, a neat trick that offers a chance, perhaps, to look down alongside the creator of this world and wonder, what indeed, you have wrought.

A barely-remembered dream between the vast vanishing past and our world today

It’s this barrage of input that lends Ismail’s take on Under Milk Wood a queasy, frequently impenetrable quality. The delicious script and astounding wordsmithery smothered at times through sheer sensory overload as we’re compelled to shift and turn in-line through buffering waves of audio, visual and physical information, contorting ourselves to chase the actors around the room under a firehose of verbiage.

4 Under Milk Wood at Northern Stage - credit Pamela Raith Photography

Perhaps, of course, this is the point. With Thomas reportedly stating that the work is a reassertion of beauty in a world reeling from the one-two punch of Nazi concentration camps and the atomic horror rained down on Japan, a threatening tone underpinning rustic pleasantries and comedy may be entirely appropriate.

An assured and interesting – yet oddly uneasy – entry into the great pantheon of Milk Wood productions, this enormous effort sees a verdant and fret-flecked world relentlessly rendered, an unsettling and seething setting of wet cobbles, soot and bristles, caught like a barely-remembered dream between the vast vanishing past and our world today.

This review was written with feedback from award-winning theatre critic Lyn Gardner as part of a Theatre Criticism Workshop. Currently Associate Editor of The Stage, Lyn has written about theatre and performance for The Guardian and The Independent.

Leigh Venus

Complimentary tickets provided by Northern Stage

Photos: Pamela Raith