[THEATRE: Interview] Under Milk Wood
Under Milk Wood
A Textual Awakening
By Roslyn Helper
When Kip Williams was asked to take the reigns from Andrew Upton and direct the Sydney Theatre Company’s forthcoming production of Under Milk Wood, it felt like something out of a fairytale. “As someone who’s grown up in Sydney and been going to STC shows since I was a young boy, it’s always been something that I’ve wanted to do,” he says.
Williams forged a relationship with Upton when he landed the Assistant Director role on The White Guard last year, and initially came on board Under Milk Wood as Associate Director – until Upton, who was originally billed to direct the production, became encumbered with the runaway international success of Gross Und Klein.
Penned by Dylan Thomas in 1954 as a radio play, Under Milk Wood is an eloquent, rambling tale that weaves its way through a day in the life of over 60 residents who live in a small, remote town called Llareggub (‘bugger all’ spelt backwards – which gives you a clue about the town life). “It’s a pre-dawn to post-dusk snapshot of an anonymous day in the life of this town, and at the same time, there’s a sense that this is a day that repeats over and over again,” says Williams.
Williams has taken a ‘rough theatre’ approach to the production of the work, using only simple props, sets and contemporary costumes on stage. “The great gift of radio is that it enables an audience to imagine something exactly as they see it,” he explains. “In many ways it’s akin to that very first imaginative experience we all have. Those stories that are read to us as children, that enter our minds aurally, and live imaginatively and more vividly than any Pixar or Disney film could possibly offer to us. So in that sense, what the company and I are enacting is a theatrical language that offers suggestions through expressive visual language, that sparks an image to live in an audience’s mind.”
The sprawling narrative expresses an incredible sense of lifespan, and how we inevitably travel through that lifespan. “You meet children who play kiss chasing games; you meet young men and women who have romantic and sexual fantasies; you meet young adults who have thwarted relationships and attempts to have relationships; you meet middle-aged couples, some who have fulfilling relationships, some who have quite embittered relationships; and then you meet older characters, who long for their lost lovers. There’s a real sense in which you can identify where you sit within this span of evolving desire; where you once were and where you’re going to be.”
In terms of Under Milk Wood’s central motif, Williams says, “I see that there are two forces in a tug of war: this unbridled sexuality that comes through in the dreams and fantasies of the characters; and the morality of the community. All characters are in some way caught – on some end of that scale – between giving in to that sexual freedom or kowtowing to the morality of the town.”
Williams says that despite the liberation movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s, we are still wrestling with deep-seated issues of sexual conservatism today. “Even though certain big legislative changes have been made, the ideological shift – and the inertia of that ideological shift – still looms large. To that point, the type of morality that Thomas rallies against in Under Milk Wood is very relatable to the type of morality that still holds court in contemporary Sydney [and is] at odds with a more natural, open, bustling, blossoming sexuality that festers within everyone.”
What: Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, Dir. Kip Williams
Where: Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
When: May 22 – July 7