Perhaps one of the most iconic pieces of Welsh theatre, written by one of the most famous Welsh poets, Under Milk Wood is given a healthy rendering at The London Theatre, New Cross. There are a few delightful performances, though generally the quality of the acting varies largely, and some of the Welsh accents are not quite up to scratch. We witness a few odd choices in movement and voice, but overall, this is an entertaining and energetic portrayal.
Entering the space, we see the cast asleep in various positions, only to be stirred by the voice of the narrator. Originally written as a play for voices, Under Milk Wood, when adapted for stage, has been interpreted in countless different ways; sometimes it is even performed at microphones, as if being transmitted on radio, as was intended. Very often however, this script is physicalized and performed by a large cast (as in this production). The epic part of the narrator is often shared out among the actors, helping keep the fluidity of the company energy, and maintain variation on an, easily monotonized, text.
In this performance the narrator, (Ian Macnaughton), is offstage. We hear his voice clearly over a sound system, but it is rather jarring. Unfortunately, he has fallen into the monotonous trap and stays on one level, with little contrast, seemingly unguided on how to pitch each moment. The narration points in one vague direction, almost as if telling a stereotypical ghost story. The energy of the actors in the space is chiefly strong, but when the narration comes in it seems to unplug us from the moments we are, potentially, becoming engrossed in, rather than help thrust the play forward and embroider the performances. I feel it would have been a more befitting choice, for this extremely small venue, if the narration had come from the energetic and focused performers on stage, thus allowing the enthusiastic flow to continue.
Besides one chair for the ever-present Captain Cat, there is no set. The actors work diligently and clearly to create the set and locations with their bodies. Mostly this provides some relatively interesting visuals, and can be helpful for the comprehension of the many different characters’ homes. There are some movement sequences, however, that seem almost completely unwarranted and confusing. Occasionally, the movement develops from a series of small gestures into brash contemporary dance motifs, which, independently, could be quite interesting and are performed with gusto, yet in the context of this production they come from nowhere and do not fit the style of the rest of the piece. At these moments it seems that dance is thrown in merely for the sake of dance, rather than for any genuine textual reason or interpretation.
Some of the cast members are Welsh, and others give valiant attempts at the accent. It is not only desirable, but important that the accents are strong and believable, as it affects how the text is conveyed. When the accents are at their best, so is the humour. When the accents are wavering (or rather unbelievable) the humour is lost. The script is written for Welsh voices; the words flow in such a way that fits and compliments the accent. When the accent is not quite accurate enough, the text does not sit as well, and therefore some of the actors’ lexical instincts go awry.
Though some of the accents need addressing, the company’s enthusiasm and energy cannot be denied. It is clear that they genuinely enjoy themselves, and are unafraid to, at times, to speak directly to the audience in a confident and playful manner. Despite some weak areas in the overall production concept, I came away from this performance rather amused.