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Dylan Thomas returns to Newbury: interview

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‘To begin at the beginning: it is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black …’. With these words we are drawn into the magic of Under Milk Wood, Dylan Thomas’ evocation of the dreams and waking hours of a Welsh seaside village.

Starting on March 17, New Era Players are performing Under Milk Wood at their Wash Common theatre. Although originally written for the radio as ‘an impression for voices’, this play has been performed on stage numerous times over the years.

To find out more, Graham Salter took the opportunity to talk to director Stephen Bennett.

Under Milk Wood cast
Under Milk Wood cast

Stephen, why did you choose Under Milk Wood as your next production?

I chose Under Milk Wood as it needs an ensemble cast. I felt it would be good to involve lots of our members in a production that would be fun to perform after such a long break.

Have you staged this play at New Era before?

We last performed Under Milk Wood 25 years ago and there are five of us from the original company involved in this one. Lots of good memories, but also tinged with sadness as a few of that original cast are no longer with us.

What memories do your cast have of the earlier production?

Lisa Harrington remembers the fun of being in a much larger ensemble cast than even that of the current production. Sue Keer, who is prompting for this production, was one of the two narrators (Voices) who sat in the lighting box and read into microphones. This, of course, meant that timing entrances for the rest of the cast was challenging as they couldn’t see the Voices.

Which is more important in your production – the visual or the auditory?

This goes to the heart of the dilemma when deciding how to approach Under Milk Wood on stage rather than producing a recording. It is described as ‘a play for voices’ and the script contains no stage directions or real clues for a director and cast. It of course means that there is no right or wrong way to stage it! I made a decision that this should be as theatrical as possible – and very visual. As long as the cast members who are narrating enjoy and relish the language in the more expressive sections, then all is well.

How important are the accents of the characters?

It is important to try and get authentic and consistent Welsh accents. Even more important is enjoying communicating the language and the characters. Our thanks go to Ray Edwards who is patiently guiding the cast with their accents and pronunciation (we are still battling with the word ‘Llareggub’!).

How much of an advantage is it to have your own theatre plus your own lighting and sound crew?

It’s brilliant – you can rehearse in the space in which you perform and the set develops around you.

The acting space needed to be as clear and uncluttered as possible to allow for seamless movement from one short scene to another as well as incorporating all the narration. Jane Read’s design has created that space, while at the same time evoking a Welsh fishing village.

Moreover, John Cordery, our technical director, together with Crispin Bishop, creates amazing visuals and sound in a small space – particularly vital for productions such as Under Milk Wood.

Do you think members of the Newbury theatre-going public may still be apprehensive about Covid?

I am sure that lots of us are still cautious about these kind of spaces, but we had near-capacity houses for Lloyd George so I think that, with suitable precautions in place, this means that audiences are now happy to come back to our gem of a theatre.

Under Milk Wood is being performed at the New Era Theatre, Andover Road, Wash Common, RG146NU, from March 17 to 19 and from March 22 to 26 (curtain up at 8pm).

To request tickets, send an email to boxoffice@neweraplayers.org

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