Cameron Goodall and Paula Arundell in Under Milk Wood | Drama Theatre

Dylan Thomas died of pneumonia, not drinking. Oh sure, the popular jury adheres to the other, tragically poetic end, but, nay. Just thought I’d clear that up. In fact, if he’d had better medical attention at the time, we might have even more to celebrate, through a more extensive body of work.

Not that we need more. Look at the legacy: Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, alone, is enough to reinvigorate a whole generation of ageing boomers. I, for one, am ardent in believing old age should burn and rage at close of day. Carpe diem! Hell, I’m almost 53, 14 years older than Thomas when he died, so I fully intend to rail, rally and rage against the dying of the light, which will come soon enough and quite unbidden.

Andrew Upton was, I’m reliably informed, originally slated to direct Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Under Milk Wood but, in the end, the baton was passed to Kip Williams, STC’s current directing associate, with Upton slipping back to dramaturg. While there’ll always be a certain ‘what if Andrew had directed it?’ invisible version upon which to speculate, the partnership we have is one to be loudly acclaimed. Not only is this one of the best STC productions of recent times, but one which can and, I reckon, will stand the test of time as a monument to Upton and Cate Blanchett’s concluding tenure.

I’m being facetious when I say it, but this is almost Under Milk Wood: The Musical, as so much impetus has been lent to the songs woven into DT’s text. This might so easily have tipped in the wrong direction, but thanks to the sensitivity and colourations of the performers (not to mention composer Alan John, who also features, as organ Morgan and other characters), it enriches and enhances the intrinsic, pervasive musicality of that text.

Jack Thompson strides calmly out of the blackness of an empty stage and starts painting, using Dylan Thomas’ broad brush to make indelible, characteristic strokes on the canvas: Llareggub, Wales; a sleepy seaside town where, like most of old Wales, people sit and wait, often in the pub (Thomas reference point being Glanmor Terrace, his own favourite, in New Quay, Ceredigion, West Wales), for the slow, black, crow-black onset of death, while pining for lost, unrequited or unconsummated love; burying heads in hands or relegating intense, burning sexual desire to obsessive tidiness.

Thompson reads impeccably: with absolute clarity and measured projection. It’s immediately clear he has fully interrogated the text. There isn’t a single, solitary inflection that is awry or out of place, or which doesn’t serve to elaborate our comprehension of the tale being told. It’s possibly his finest-ever performance, in any medium. If not, it’s up there. Extraordinary to think this is his debut for STC.

In a while, Sandy Gore joins him. Noone sounds like her. It’s a voice to be treasured and celebrated, every bit as much as Thompson’s quintessentially blokey (in the best possible way) tonality.

Gradually, at the same, sleepy village pace of the tiny town itself, or like the leisurely sun, making its ascent in its own good time, as many as 55 characters make their way onto the stage and into our hearts and minds, as vivid and alive as subjects in a Picasso painting, or Verdi opera.


Paula Arundell, Cameron Goodall, Helen Thomson, Sandy Gore and Bruce Spence

The casting is inspired; the resulting ensemble extraordinary. To a large extent, it’s a who’s who of veteran Australian actors, a parade of some of our finest: apart from Thompson and Gore, Bruce Spence and Drew Forysth; at the younger, but still accomplished end of the spectrum, Helen Thomson, Drew Livingston, Cameron Goodall, Paula Arundell and, introducing, Ky Baldwin, whose talent already shines like a lighthouse lamp. Everyone seems to be giving of their absolute best, almost as if they’ve suddenly become informed and aware of that dying light, acting as if their lives, or an award, or something, depended on it.

There can be no better attestation to Kip Williams’ contribution than this, save for the plethora of gently dramatic ideas that allow plenty of space for the imaginations of the audience to fill. An example? The decaying Captain Cat (Spence), in a Jason recliner-rocker, being pulled on ropes by other cast members, to evoke his rollicking, seafaring past, now well-and-truly behind him; now, he’s all at sea with his memories, regrets and desperation to find peace and reconciliation, before his candle flickers and is snuffed.

Williams and cast have enmeshed themselves precisely with Thomas’ pedantic rhythms, which themselves echo the ebb and flow of the tide. Instrumental in this realisation of Thomas’ vision is Robert Cousins’ set design, at the centre of which are three casement windows, which look out beyond the Llareggub shoreline; a scene both peaceful and picturesque. Damien Cooper has, magically, found a way to emulate a dawn-to-dusk transition as deceptive and subtle as the real thing. Costume designer Alice Babidge harmonises with clothes that are simple and suggestive of time and place, rather than literally faithful to the text.

Performances, across the board, are as luminous as Thomas’ verbal palette: it’s almost impossible to rate one above another in terms of sheer craft or individual magnetism. Having said that, Forsyth reminded us how much he has to offer outside the annual Wharf Revue; Bruce Spence showed his elasticity as an actor isn’t confined to his lanky, flexible frame; Helen Thomson impressed with her nuance and comedic sensibilities. You see what I mean. I could go on and on, citing respective merits. There’s plenty here to admire. Paula Arundell (as Polly Garter, and others), particularly, has an intensity and presence that’s, at once, gripping, poignant and hypnotic.

Perhaps the final compliment to the worthiness and excellence of this production is that, if you didn’t know it was originally a radio play, there’d be nary a clue you’d discern, such is the stature of its consummation as a live theatrical work.

Demerit points only for the ignorant woman nearby who saw fit to audibly text through the first minutes of the performance, so revered by yours truly (the play, not the woman) that I was breathless to hear, again, the lap of waves; to have the heady, salty scent of the sea suffuse my nostrils. That someone could be so callous, charmless and coarse has me reaching, like Mr Pugh, for The Poisoner’s Handbook, for her, and a bucket of parsnip wine, for myself. By way of self-indulgent compensation, I quote, for myself, and you, the opening line, etched, as it is and will ever be, on the very fabric of my consciousness:

“To begin at the beginning: (boop, boop) it is spring, moonless night in the (boop, boop) small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets (boop, boop) silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ (boop, boop) wood limping invisible down to the (boop, boop) sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, (boop, boop) fishingboatbobbing sea.”

The details: Under Milk Wood plays the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until July 7. Tickets on the STC website.