To begin at the beginning. How can it be that a single actor could even come up with such a brilliant but mad as hell idea: a one woman version of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, his 1953 radio play that features over 60 characters? Sixty of them! A play that was penned by the beautiful, damned, chauvinistic Welshman, encapsulating all that he loved and loathed about his countrymen; the sniping, the singing, and, of course the drinking; and all of it is brilliantly realised by Zoe Norton Lodge in this brilliant, and in many ways inexplicable, performance.
The play is set in a small Welsh village called Llareggub (‘Bugger All’ spelt backwards, an in-joke Thomas spent most of his life trying to slip in somewhere) from a predawn morning to the closing of the day. It consists of snatches of conversations, the solitary thoughts of the lonely and nostalgic, the young and old, and even the dead. It is not a slice of life kind of play – there’s too much magical, dense and grandiose language going on, especially from the narrator: “There’s the clip clop of horses on the sunhoneyed cobbles/of the humming streets, hammering of horse- shoes, gobble/quack and cackle, tomtit twitter from the bird-ounced/boughs, braying on Donkey Down.”
Bambina Borracha Productions – specifically their set designer, Natalie Hughes – have chosen a very simple set that can be easily transformed through the various props and guises available, underpinned by a multimedia backdrop (designed by director Vanessa Hughes) that adds colour to those sections of the play that require more than one voice at a time. A sheet hung up to dry on the washing line can become a shawl on Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard, or a bundled up baby for Polly Garter, while the sound of drying washing whips in the wind.
Thomas originally wrote the play for radio, and it has since been adapted and mounted for theatre and film. This is what makes it so interesting to translate to a visual medium. You can’t have 60 actors traipsing about the stage, so it makes sense to put it on as a one person show, cut out the stress of elevating the importance of one character over the other. Even so, the thought, the precise detail that has gone into this production is amazing; you can see the exertion on the face of Norton Lodge, but it doesn’t affect one’s enjoyment of the performance one jot; in fact it enhances it. If we had been subject to such a flawless performance without the actor showing any sign of physical strain and concentration, it would have made the play less human, less engaging. As well as being taken in by the story, the audience found itself as if watching a marathon runner, egging her on to the finish line, but watching the grace of her movements on the way. Oh, and the Welsh accent? Fantastic. Watch this while you can.
Bambina Borracha Productions present Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, at Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall until October 9
Directed by Vanessa Hughes, performed by Zoe Norton Lodge, set design by Natalie Hughes
Melbourne Fringe Festival, September 22 – October 10