"From where you are, you can hear their dreams." – Dylan Thomas invites you to the small sea-side Welsh town of Llareggub – a land of rich imaginings; delightful and eccentric characters; beautifully crafted and lyrical verse; and, of course, a soupcon of naughty irreverence. Under Milk Wood opens tonight at Heidelberg Theatre company.
Master director Chris Baldock and his cast of 15, who play over 80 characters, bring to life this Thomas masterpiece in what can only be described as a major visual event. Every beautiful nuance is lovingly wrung out of Thomas' verses while the amazing array of lighting complement the mood and atmosphere.
Chris Baldock is no stranger to the 'big-scale' production and has, over recent times, brought The Grapes Of Wrath as well as Cloudstreet to the Heidelberg stage. I spoke with Chris about all things Milk Wood and beyond.
Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas – not a play that is featured on many play bills around the non-professional traps. Can you talk a little about this play and what it is that drew you to it?
The play was written for radio and the initial, now very famous broadcast, featured Richard Burton as First Voice. Those readers who have heard the recording will agree just how iconic his performance is in that. The author, Dylan Thomas, is regarded now as Wales' most famous poet. The language, to both speak and to listen to, is absolutely stunning. So lyrical but moving, hilarious, witty and just magical. There is no plot as such. The audience is invited to witness the thoughts and dreams of the inhabitants of a little Welsh fishing village as they sleep. Then, as the inhabitants awaken, we watch their day unfold as those dreams we saw now affect their everyday lives. I was introduced to the play as a teenage drama student by my wonderful drama tutor. We did it as a youth production and it has stayed with me ever since. When looking at plays for the Heidelberg stage, I thought it could be a perfect opportunity to have a go at it myself nearly 30 years later!
Some of the particular requirements of this script include Welsh accents and almost 60 characters. In terms of the requirements, what was the audition process like and what skills were you particularly looking for from the auditioning actors?
Actually over 80 characters! The joy of this play is that you could do it with as many or as few actors as you like. It's entirely up to you. The Welsh accent, unlike the Irish, is fairly uncommon to most Australian actors so there was a lot of trepidation from actors leading up to the auditions. But it's actually a fairly easy accent to pick up and is a delight to speak. For the audition, I really just wanted to see that the actors could do accents in general and didn't worry too much about them being particularly Welsh. I wanted the auditionees to focus on giving me different characterisations so didn't want the stress of worrying about accents get in the way of that, although a lot had done their homework and I heard some great ones. My auditions were a little different to what I usually do. It was like a Round Robin, doing a specific section of the script and throwing people into different roles to see how they jump from one character to the next whilst also enjoying and understanding the text.
Given your needs re. casting, was the play a difficult one to cast?
I was really fortunate to have a large turnout for this one. The play comes with a great reputation so I got some fantastic talent. I was concerned that I would have trouble casting it as the year-end shows are always difficult due to commitments leading up to Xmas. But I needn't have worried. Once the auditions were complete, I looked at the characters with the actors I had and cast from there. I have a cast of 15 of varying ages, shapes and sizes. It's a true ensemble piece.
The play has been described as containing rich beautiful language that is a warming celebration of humanity. Is this your personal assessment of the message of the play and why?
That is a great summation of the play. I agree wholeheartedly with that. There is no plot as such and Dylan Thomas wrestled with that aspect for quite some time in the initial stages of writing it. Once he dispelled with the idea of a narrative as such, that was when his imagination took full flight. The characters all represent aspects of either ourselves or people we know – the best parts and the worst which is what makes it so incredibly engaging and fascinating.
Even though the play has been staged since its conception, it is predominately a play for voices and is possibly most famous in its audio form. What is your vision for transporting this audio play into the visual format?
That is definitely the biggest challenge facing any director. Like Shakespeare, the play is so open to interpretation. My "vision" was that the play needs to be visually exciting in a theatrical form. For the general public, they need to have all their senses stimulated in order for them to be entertained by it and to understand it. The other major aspect are the roles of Voices 1 and 2 in the radio version who speak over half the script. Most productions keep them in but I have decided to share them amongst the whole cast, making it far more interesting and challenging for them and the audience. So now instead a Voice talking about a character and then the character speaking, the actor playing the character will either speak and then morph into the character or will be in that character the whole time speaking about themselves in the third person. I was worried whether this would work initially but my fabulous cast have proven to me it was the right choice. It's also vital that I remember that it is a play for voices first and foremost so there times in the production where I think we celebrate that.
How much preparation work did you do before starting the rehearsal process?
To be honest, apart from listening to the original recording over and over and trying to establish a vision in my mind, not a lot. Of course there was the set design to organise with my wonderful designer George Tranter, once I had worked out how I was going to do it, but until I knew how many people I would be casting, I had to wait. The hard work started after auditions where I had a ball blocking the piece.
What sort of challenges have reared their ugly heads to date and how have these been managed?
It's been fairly smooth sailing so far. The biggest headache has been not having all the cast at every rehearsal but that has had its benefits in that the rest of the cast, stepping in for their missing cast mates, have learned the show better and it has also bonded them a bit faster. I have a tight-knit bunch of actors as a result. The other challenge has been that I have been free to only rehearse two nights a week due to work commitments. However, Helen Ellis, my awesome and very talented assistant, takes another rehearsal each week which involves recapping, character and dialogue work so the show is in great hands, even though the process has been a bit unorthodox compared to how I usually work.
What is the one big theme of this play that sticks with you and what do you ultimately hope that audiences take with them after having viewed the play?
I think the one I enjoy the most is about the importance of relationships. Most of the major characters in the play are in one, wanting one, wanting to get out of one, have lost one or are avoiding one. Thomas explores this in a Dickensian way with his larger-than-life characters. I really would hope that the audience are entertained on a number of levels – with the staging, the characterisations and the acting but mostly falling in love with the script and the language that Thomas created. I hope we live up to the expectations of the Dylan Thomas purists and that we convert newcomers to the piece.
Can you share some of the personal rewards that directing a show of this magnitude brings to you?
Oh definitely the cast pressie on the final night! No seriously, I love it when the crazy staging I have created in this mind of mine manages to translate on to the stage through the actors and it works. Nothing better for me. The size of the cast and the magnitude of the production has no bearing on my enjoyment level. My one, two and three-handers in the past have also brought massive rewards. It's all about the production as a whole with me and the audiences relating to it. My philosophy has always been that not everyone will like the play. That's human nature. But if they like the production then we've done our job.
And finally, what is next for you?
Some acting next year hopefully. I'm starting to enjoy that again after being so immersed in directing for the past decade or so. I'm directing a premiere at Williamstown next year which I'm very excited about. After that I have a long-dreamed of project I'd like to embark on if the theatrical gods are kind. We'll see.
Under Milk Wood plays at Heidelberg Theatre Company from November 17 – December 3. For further info please visit: http://home.vicnet.net.au/~htc/plays/2011/5milkwood.html
Photos: CB & JA