Review: Under Milk Wood (The Empty Room)

By George Perry

The Cast of Under Milk Wood

Under Milk Wood played at Toronto’s Abrams Studio Theatre. The play was written by Dylan Thomas and is considered by many a masterpiece. The Empty Room offered a fresh and relevant revisit.

Thomas worked on this play for over ten years.  He read two parts in the first production. The play was intended for radio.  The BBC first broadcast Under Milk Wood in 1954 with Richard Burton as the character First Voice. In 1972 a movie version was made, staring Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O’Toole.

The play takes place in a fictional town in Wales. Originally created as a radio play, The Empty Room’s production of Under Milk Wood remains to a large extent “theatre of the mind.”  Artistic director Edward Hillier has succeeded in bringing a challenging and poetic work to stage.

As one enters the darkened theatre, we were somewhat startled to see blindfolded actors scattered around.

The lights dim more and we hear the main character in Under Milk Wood.  It is “First Voice,” who serves as narrator. Tayves Fiddis performs admirably in this role as well as his two other characters. 

In fact, at least thirty characters are credited for the cast of eight. All of the cast, four women and four men are engaging and truthfully portray the varied characters.

There’s a lot going on, and it happens in a personal, introspective way. At times this Welsh play reminded me a bit of the British soap opera Coronation Street.

We become familiar with the characters of the village through great acting, helped by some incredible use of props, stage and lighting. My friend Dave especially enjoyed the use of fake fish and fishhooks. He also liked how the story was told, and the eccentric characters.

We were both highly impressed with the sheer number of lines that the actors had to memorize.  They were delivered in a poetic, flowing way, with few, if any mistakes. The feat is even more impressive because the actors deliver such an interactive and very physical performance.

I liked that all the actors had bare feet, and the cool humidity in the theatre. This helped me to imagine Wales and the characters more vividly.

The one thing we both thought could have been better is the length of the play. We thought it could be a bit shorter.

It’s obvious that everyone involved in Under Milk Wood shared Hillier’s concept and worked together to make it a huge achievement. The Empty Room’s mission to create theatre “out of thin air” and “without the limitations of realism” seem brave and difficult, but they have succeeded.

Under Milk Wood played at Abrams Studio Theatre May 3 – 7, 2011