Still So Much Hiding Under Milk Wood

jeremy and susan

jeremy webb & susan stackhouse

Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, written shortly before his death in 1953, was originally performed as a radio play in 1954 for The BBC and, although it has been adapted numerous times in different mediums over the past sixty years, the work’s structure of narration and emphasis on the poet’s delightful and lyrical use of language rather than action or character development make it a challenging piece to bring to the Contemporary Theatre. In Off the Leash’s production, playing until March 30th, 2013 at the Park Place Theatre, Jeremy Webb and Susan Stackhouse introduce us to over forty of Milk Wood’s residents with the virtuosity one would expect but are unable to completely unshackle Thomas’ piece from feeling like a misplaced radio drama.

As an oral performance this production excels. I found myself several times resisting the urge to close my eyes and allow Jeremy Webb and Susan Stackhouse’s beautiful diction and Thomas’ gorgeous and visually evocative poetry to wash over me, tugging at my own imagination and flooding my mind with imagery. Webb and Stackhouse do bring these forty characters to life, but because there are so many interwoven storylines and so many characters crammed into this seventy minute play, few characters rise above being broad and cartoony (and often stereotypically Dickensian) stock figures. This means that it is difficult to invest in these people, their lives or their town in an immediate or meaningful way. Conversely, if we are meant to be kept at an observational, emotional distance director Rhys Bevan-John does not make it conceptually clear what this effect is trying to achieve.

As you would expect from the cast of Under Milk Wood, of course, there are beautiful moments for Webb and Stackhouse in this piece, they are captivating to watch and there are great moments of humor and moments of sweetness and reverence, but it is harder to find the poignant beating heartbeat in Thomas than it is with Dickens. It seems like a strong concept to give life and shape to the town’s inner dreamworld would have helped Webb and Stackhouse find their through-lines and a dramatic arc to give immediacy to the the emotional journey for the audience.

What is frustrating is that this production SHOULD work much better than it does. Jeremy Webb has proven to be a master at balancing narration-based adaptations with three dimensional characters whose stories are poignant and whose antics and physicality are hilarious. Susan Stackhouse is a dialect and accent archive with a wildly impressive resume, Rhys Bevan-John has extensive experience in physical theatre, mime and sketch comedy AND he is (at least part) Welsh and, perhaps most importantly, Thomas’ piece takes place in a dreamworld where anything is possible. Yet, not enough of this impressive combination of creative and innovative prowess is reflected in the production.

I wanted bolder choices. I wanted to see something unique and innovative with this text and these performers that didn’t feel like a party trick but actually justified WHY this particular sixty year old Welsh play is relevant for 2013 Halifax and why Webb, Stackhouse and Bevan-John needed to stage their own, distinctive adaptation. I know they are capable of this. I have seen it from Webb in A Christmas Carol and from Bevan-John in the collectively created The Perfection of Man. Why here? Why now? Why this?

The play’s set is minimalist and seemingly simple, yet, upon further investigation one notices that the wooden platforms are packed with intriguing looking strange and antique objects. There is so much creative potential on the stage left untouched, untapped, unrealized and un-mined, hidden away from the action of the play. I felt that this set was indicative of the production as a whole. There is still so much beneath the surface to uncover that I wish they would.

Off the Leash’s Under Milk Wood plays at the Park Place Theatre (Lower Parking Lot, Point Pleasant Park, Halifax) until March 30th every evening at 8:00pm with matinees on the 24th and the 30th at 2:00pm. Tickets are $20.00 or $15.00 and can be purchased online at http://www.ticketpro.ca, by phone at 1.888.311.9090 or at any Ticketpro Outlet in Atlantic Canada. For more information please visit this website. 

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