Under Milk Wood – a must-see VA Production.
From a very early age the great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas fell in love with the sound of language and showed brilliance with word play. Although of Welsh heritage, from Swansea, South Wales, Thomas wrote exclusively in English. Nevertheless, he connected all his life with Welsh landscapes and people, and lived there most of his life.
Nowhere is his boldness with language and understanding of his own people more evident than in Under Milk Wood, his most famous, and last, work, completed in 1953 just before his death aged 39. Its inspirations are Welsh villages where he lived at different times with his wife Catherine.
Set in the fictional village of Llareggub, (read backwards) the play has often been described as dreamlike and hypnotic, its characters and events introduced by a narrator (First Voice) who gently steers us in and out of the lives of the village people, both living and dead, over one 24 hour period in spring. It’s about ‘nothing’ yet ‘everything’ to quote one commentator. It has musicality, mournfulness and mischief, say others – a depiction in a sense, of Wales itself.
The power of Under Milk Wood is rooted in the magic of language in the hands of a master. Life is conjured through word play, snippets of conversation, asides and monologue. A ‘play for voices’ commissioned by BBC Radio, it’s been adapted many times for stage, and twice for film.
Valley Artists are now offering their own fine staging of this masterpiece (adapted by Janine Oliver and Chris Davey), with experienced director/producer Janine at the helm. It’s a daunting challenge, but they and their team are more than up to it. At the first run- through rehearsal, I was struck by strong similarities with dance. The wondrous musical language leads, the rest follows, yet characters, place and language are indivisible.
The cast of 15 (covering 57 parts) – including some first timers on stage – bring us the accents, the feel, the look, of an authentic 1950s Welsh fishing community. The set is an ingenious intimate ‘pop up’ village that takes us right into its rooms and streets. Accomplished sound and lighting support and experienced backstage teams complete the production.
We’re used to the VA way of doing things: numbers of talented committed volunteers just making it happen, at a very high standard. We try not to take it for granted. And they’ve done it again.
I feel sure you’ll find this delightful production of Under Milk Wood amusing, moving and memorable. For a short time only, a bunch of unforgettable folk from of a South Wales village are ‘popping in’ to our New South Wales village and valley. It’s definitely worth getting to know them.
Under Milk Wood performances: 30, 31 Mar, 1, 4, 5 6, 7 April, Laguna Hall.
Tell us a little about your background with Valley Artists
I am a founding member of VA which all began in 1997 from a Pencil Orchids script-writing workshop with Australian playwright Timothy Daly, funded by NSW Writers’ Centre and OZCO. We then decided to perform the short scripts. The original group was a total of seven. We started by putting in $100 each. Somehow we broke even and decided we were good at this and should become an incorporated company and get serious. In those days we all wrote, performed, produced and marketed. So due to necessity, I have experience in all aspects of theatre and have learnt a lot from my fellow thespians. VA also sent me to NIDA to complete a short director’s course. This will be the fifth play I have directed for the company.
What drew you to Bryce Courtenay’s novel The Family Frying Pan in the first place?
I read the novel in the late 1990’s and realised what a great story it was. It’s a very descriptive novel and always in the back of my mind. I knew it would make a great piece of theatre. I work from a visual perspective when I approach a play and The Family Frying Pan is full of colourful characters with varying backgrounds who are now “all in the same boat”, so to speak, fleeing country in turmoil. The gathering together of people around a camp fire, sharing history and stories, is a culture shared by many countries and appealed to me. Everyone loves a good story.
The setting of The Family Frying Pan is Russia but there are issues that eerily resonate with what is happening around the world today.
Yes there certainly are. I have been asked if I planned the timing of this play to coincide with the current state of the world’s refugee crisis. My answer to that is no, but I can’t really remember a time in my life when there haven’t been refugees fleeing from war or tyranny. And I expect that if I ever found myself in that situation – fleeing a country for a new life of freedom – I would certainly be asking questions of my fellow refugees and sharing stories of the past and my hopes for the future.
The Family Frying Pan contains personal stories of hardship and struggle from people of all walks of life, differing social status and educational background. Can you expand on this?
To have had the stuffing ripped out of your soul, by witnessing your family murdered, your house burned to the ground, and having no control over these situations is, I imagine, indeed something that people find it hard to recover from. If you manage to find freedom by escaping tyranny and remain unscathed and able to share your memories then you’re lucky and that comes from pure courage. This story has all of these elements. From hard-working peasants to educated professors, there is a range of social class, thrown together with one goal in mind: freedom and peace of mind.
Adapting this story for stage has been an epic journey for you as well. Tell us about it
I ran my idea past a friend who, it turns out, had a connection with Bryce Courtenay. I first approached Bryce in early 2011 asking for permission to adapt the story. I kept my fingers crossed and several weeks later I received confirmation and blessings for my project from Bryce and his wife Christine. During that year I directed A Streetcar Named Desire, and at the end of 2011 I became ill. Early 2012, I began treatment for my illness but it got worse and I was in and out of hospital until, late in 2012, I was diagnosed with liver failure. I had already started the adaptation, but writing was put on hold.
Mid 2013, I moved to Sydney to be closer to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and went on a waiting list for a liver transplant. Fortunately for me, I received a liver in August 2013. My partner Col Philip, (who became my carer) and the amazing transplant team from RPA are the reason I am here today. As with all transplants, rejection is imminent at all times. A regime of daily medication is necessary to keep this at bay. I have gradually gained energy and managed to finalise the script. I have also pulled together a great crew and wonderful cast. Current acting workshops have helped to fuel the enthusiasm. I thank my old friend and colleague Wayne Van Keren and also Chris Davey for running these workshops.
We are now well into rehearsals and I guarantee that with this world premiere, VA will deliver a classic piece of outdoor theatre. I hope one day to be able to publish this work and see other theatre companies perform it.
The Family Frying Pan is also innovative in some technical aspects. My great friend and technical director, Peter Fewtrell, has been designing for this production for the past four years. I am pleased to say that this outdoor production will be lit using LED lights powered by solar charged batteries. This is a first for lighting and sound in theatre. Valley Artists are ahead in the carbon points stakes!
You must have been inspired by Bryce’s whole-hearted support of your project.
Bryce was a very generous. He gave me total freedom on the writing of the script. During our correspondence we talked about payment for rights for the use of his story and he told me that he had heard that the wombats in the Wollombi Valley had a hard time and could I please donate what I thought was a reasonable amount for rights to WIRES. I was overwhelmed with his and Christine’s generosity and assured him that this would happen and that I would do him and his family proud in my adaptation. I am sorry Bryce is no longer with us and will not be able to witness his story come alive on stage. However, I hear that his wife Christine may be attending.
How long have you been a part of the Valley Artists?
I’m one of the founding members of VA and was involved in the first production “Come To Pieces” in 1998, just over15 years and more than 30 productions ago.
As director of CPWP – what number play does this make for you in a directing capacity?
This will be the 12th show I’m directing for VA.
What made you choose to do this one? Are you a fan of this particular playwright?
I’d become aware of Dario Fo and his plays “Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!” and “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” in my last year at NIDA in 1980 and was really taken by the dynamic nature of the writing, the physical style and the cheeky Commedia dell’arte influence.
I’ve been working through my wish list over the years and this time when I took Can’t Pay down from the bookshelf it seemed right.
I am a fan of Dario Fo, along with many thousands of Europeans and people all over the world. He is a very clever satirical writer and indeed a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Do you think it is timely given the state of the world at the moment?
Yes for many reasons and not just political ones. For a start this is a very funny play and it seems to me we can take ourselves bit too seriously at the moment so to laugh at ourselves is healthy. Beyond that, in Australia, we are seeing rapidly rising food prices, manufacturing industries closing, those in authority abusing their powers and unfair pressures on the lower income earners. These were the issues on Fo’s mind in the late 70’s.
What are you hoping that people who see the play walk away with?
They will walk away with smiles on their faces and over time I hope reflect on the messages within the fun.
As a director, do you follow a formula or science if you will in how you relate to your cast and crew or does it depend on the production?
Each production is different with different genre requirements. My last production, “Across the Water” was naturalistic in style and required that form of study to get as close as possible to the truth of life of the characters. And so that informs the rehearsal style.
This one though is a different animal again. It‘s a farce; fast, funny and physical, so rehearsal is tailored to that.
When we start I don’t know all the answers but I trust the process and my companions. This is a collaborative art form.
It’s good for our actors, directors and indeed our audience to experience a broad range of theatrical styles and over the years I think the Valley Artists team of people have provided just that to our community.