When I first arrived to Brasenose chapel to watch the technical rehearsal of Under Milk Wood, I glimpsed a solemn looking woman, in a solemn looking white dress, standing at the entrance. I quickly closed the door, thinking I must have stumbled upon a church service. I hadn’t. The moment I realised it was a play was hilarious and confusing, two excellent qualities that Under Milk Wood definitely has. Its strength – as well as its greatest weaknesses – lies in this absurd solemnity, amplified by the grand appearance of the chapel in which it is performed.
The performance is a bit disorienting, in a way that can be exploited for artistic impact. I was only shown a few scenes, since I dared not enter for a while, and they were enough to suggest that the production would make exciting use of the space. The audience stands or sits in the pews, like they would if they were attending a service. The play happens in different parts of the chapel, with actors springing out of the crowd with their daily woes, or getting married on the platform on the second floor, or having fights in the doorway and by the altar.
This means that an audience member, in any given position, will have limited visibility of the show. This staging emphasises the fragmented nature of the plot: the story of a whole Welsh village, the lives of everyone who inhabits it. If you lived in a village, surely you wouldn’t get a full view of all your neighbour’s lives, and the play replicates this perfectly.
I was impressed with the creative naturalism of the staging, and disappointed that it was undermined by an over-dramatic, staged kind of acting. Everyone speaks as if they are reciting a solemn Shakespeare monologue, loudly, grandly declaring the minutiae of their lives. This could make it difficult to distinguish the characters from each other, and makes it hard to emphasise with them on a human level.
It does however make for some brilliant humour, and I can say I experienced a moment of most delightful comedy when one of the characters grandly spoke to two men about them blowing their nose. I appreciated the deliberate nature of this solemnity, shown in the excellent consistency of all the actors in maintaining the tone, and in the simple and solemn period costumes. At times it was indeed effective, both for humour and for impressiveness. But often it felt distant and hollow, and left the viewer yearning for a greater variety of tones, which can better express the intimate moments of the character’s lives, as well as highlight the grandness when it is necessary. But the play may indeed have grown in humanity when watched in its entirety.
Overall, this is a creative and interesting production. It’s let down by an overly dramatic attitude which does not allow the actors to engage with the text on a more human level, but it experiments with conceptual and staging ideas in ways that deserve much praise.