In divided times, there’s something comforting about Dylan Thomas’s day-in the-life portrait of a Welsh village. It’s not that his radio poem – first broadcast in 1954, the year after his death – lacks conflict. The fictional Llareggub has its quota of murderous husbands, unrequited lovers and bigamists. It’s just that his authorial voice is non-judgmental. Thomas is a benign observer, wryly describing the townsfolk, their quirks and foibles, but also showing them getting along, more or less. Under Milk Wood is a one-nation celebration of difference that has no interest in taking sides.
Perhaps that’s why director Elayce Ismail thought it worth relocating the dramatic poem to north-east England – notwithstanding that Llareggub’s people are called Myfanwy and Dai. In Under Milk Wood, she finds a little-Britain cross-section of seafarers, churchmen and lusty adolescents who could be resident in many a coastal community. And in the local accent, especially as articulated by a sonorous Christina Berriman Dawson and David Kirkbride, Ismail has a fair match for the rounded language of Thomas’s south Wales.
Staged in the round, the better to emphasise communality, this is an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production that can be too elaborate for its own good. An early introduction of Foley effects works well as the two actors record loops to evoke the rhythmic pulse of tides, brushes and church bells. But when Kris Deedigan’s panoramic video fills two sides of the room, the images can be distractingly literal. However impressive his countryside vistas, the gambolling lambs in your head will be more vivid.
Head-spinning live projections are an exception that maintain the connection with the theatrical event. Otherwise it’s down to the actors to pull the focus back into the room. When given the chance, they do so with clarity and intelligence. Precisely timed to synchronise with Richard Hammarton’s sophisticated sound design, the actors’ delivery is where the life of the production lies. Generous and good humoured in their homely knitwear, Berriman Dawson and Kirkbride make light work of a dense script, keeping the characters down to earth and letting the language soar.
• At Northern Stage, Newcastle, until 17 November.