Photo credit: Michael Sheen (Photo by Johan Persson)

'Under Milk Wood' starring Michael Sheen at the National Theatre is achingly poignant

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Why do we tell stories? Lyndsey Turner's emotive staging of Dylan Thomas's 1953 play for voices proffers some profound ideas: to heal familial bonds, to find lucidity in the murkiness of dementia, and to reach much-needed catharsis after a long period of suffering.

Of course, for audiences returning to theatre — albeit with social distancing, meaning the Olivier is still in the round and with restricted capacity — there is joy simply in the process: seeing a world conjured live before us. So, I had mixed feelings about Turner's new framing device (additions written by Siân Owen), which prosaically anchors Thomas's poetry when it really wants to soar — and to take us with it. 

"To begin at the beginning," intones the narrator of Under Milk Wood, but we actually now begin in a care home, where Michael Sheen's Owain Jenkins comes to visit his estranged, unresponsive dad Richard (Karl Johnson). At the urging of staff, he reaches back into his father's boyhood, spent in that small Welsh town of Llareggub.

It's neatly set up, with hints at the characters to come among the home's residents — like Anthony O'Donnell, who will play Captain Cat, tinkering with a model ship. It also makes the recounting of Thomas's tale a therapeutic process: Richard finally speaks when called upon to play his own father, Llareggub's Reverend Eli Jenkins, while Owain's life-wrecking alcoholism is fractured through the soused Cherry Owen and town pub the Sailors' Arms.

And yet, even if that premise is especially resonant right now, it's hard for any addition to compete with the imaginative wonder of Thomas's world, which so nimbly combines the solemnly spiritual and startlingly earthy, the cosily nostalgic and sharply grotesque, finding the beauty and strangeness in the everyday — and in the most glorious language.

You just want to roll those names around your mouth to savour them — Rosie Probert, Organ Morgan, Nogood Boyo, Gossamer Beynon — along with Thomas's heady descriptions, like that "sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea," or the dream lover who is "Samson-syrup-gold-maned, whacking thighed and piping hot."

But once it kicks into gear, Turner's production brilliantly communicates the wit of Under Milk Wood, whether it's the postman's wife steaming open everyone's letters or the murderous fantasies of the put-upon Mr Pugh — a standout turn from Alan David. Excellent, too, are the shape-shifting Siân Phillips, Kezrena James and, in particular, Susan Brown, who plays the terrifyingly severe Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard, secretly yearning Gossamer Beynon, and smouldering Mrs Dai Bread 2 (yes, there is bigamy here, other many sins).

And while Sheen has the unenviable task of competing with Richard Burton's iconic BBC Radio recording, he offers his own rich interpretation, full of yearning to connect. Thomas's "Only you can hear" is no longer narratorial rhetoric, but a personal plea from son to father. The gulf between them is evident just in their appearance: the rumpled, wild-haired writer and the former headmaster in a stiff three-piece suit (shades of the heavy-drinking Thomas and his teacher father). Johnson imbues this patriarch with great dignity, but also a childlike fear at being lost in the mental wilderness.

In fact, with the older cast sometimes playing children, it starts to feel like Florian Zeller's The Father meets Dennis Potter's Blue Remembered Hills — without quite the dramatic coherence of either. But there are delightful moments of staging innovation from Merle Hensel, including a series of tablecloth tricks, which support the gambolling text, and the evocation of ghosts is particularly effective. One departed soul, wondering about his lost love, softly asks "When she smiles, is there dimples?" Forced modern parallels are unnecessary; the aching poignancy of that cuts like a knife.

Under Milk Wood is running at the National Theatre through 24 July. 

Photo credit: Michael Sheen (Photo by Johan Persson)


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