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POSTED: 05 JULY 2010

Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas, created by Vanessa Hughes & Zoe Norton Lodge

Bambina Borracha Productions | Sidetrack Theatre, Marrickville, Sydney | Until 18 July

I remember the great Hunter Valley winemaker Murray Tyrrell delivering one of his famous throwaway lines just a few months before he died, declaring 2000 to be the vintage of the century. You couldn’t really argue against the assertion, but with 99 vintages to go it was hardly meaningful.

I reckon, though, that with just over half of 2010 on the downstream side, it’s well worth nominating Zoe Norton Lodge the theatrical revelation of the year so far. Her one-woman rendition of Under Milk Wood at Marrickville’s tiny new Sidetrack Theatre fairly sizzles with passion, talent, verve, physicality and stagecraft.

Norton Lodge is onstage for 90 uninterrupted minutes, dressed in simple white overalls, playing all 64 parts in Dylan Thomas’s epic 1954 radio play about the endearing and sometimes not-so-endearing folk of the mythical Welsh harbourside village of Llareggub, which certainly sounds Welsh enough until you read the name backwards.

The ease with which she delivers Thomas’s scintillating verse, sliding from one role into another, often twisting and turning as characters converge, converse and interact, never losing her way, is a remarkable theatrical feat. To boot, she has a beautiful and versatile voice — one that can seductively whisper, stridently berate and then burst quite thrillingly into song.

Norton Lodge’s love for Dylan Thomas and Under Milk Wood originated in childhood when her father Paul read verses of it as bedtime stories. The seed for the current production was sown in 2001 when Zoe, then 17, performed a five-minute version of the play on her schoolmate Vanessa Hughes’ bed.

That was the beginning of a collaboration — Hughes is the show’s director and ‘mediamaker’ — that nearly a decade later has delivered a must-see performance.

The production’s stage design is inspired. Simple, curved, painted chipboard (I presume) cut-outs line the floor and set the lie of the land for a village rising above the harbour. Little houses dot the stage, sometimes lighting up and sometimes rising up as Zoe Norton Lodge and Dylan Thomas peer into their inhabitants’ dreams, daily lives and relationships. Little ships float above the village, casting shadows on the backdrop.

At the back is a single-string clothesline evocative of simple village life. A ladder allows Norton Lodge to observe the goings-on, and dead smack centre is a bathtub that provides a delightful, rolling rowboat for Captain Cat, one of Llareggub’s most notable residents. There’s nothing fancy here but it all works an absolute treat.

I like the feel of the theatre as well — a simple corrugated-iron construction, rugs scattered about the seats for warmth and/or padding, a thriving communal market in the adjacent laneway on Sunday afternoons. It’s under the artistic leadership of Kate Gaul, who did a great job there just recently directing Chekhov’s classic, The Seagull (READ REVIEW).

I saw Under Milk Wood the day after seeing STC’s excellent production of Long Day’s Journey into Night on the very big stage of the Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay, and was reminded of some advice offered many years ago by English restaurant reviewer Paul Levy:

If it does its job well and does it with commitment and passion, he told me, the humblest bistro can provide an experience as memorable as that offered by the world’s finest silver-service dining room. Or words to that effect.

Indeed.

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