There is something very comforting about walking over Waterloo Bridge and seeing the lights blazing in the National Theatre once more, and while full capacity audiences may still be some time away, the reopening of two of its three spaces in quick succession and the recent announcement of a year-long season, means this premiere venue is very much back in business. Only able to open one of its stages in the past 16-months, the resumption of performances in the Dorfman earlier in June with the premiere of Jack Thorne’s poignant new play After Life was a notable success. Now, the Olivier is also back online following its transformation into a 500-seat in-the-round space which briefly welcomed the Death of England: Delroy and Dick Whittington before successive lockdowns prematurely ended both runs. It returns with a beautifully pitched adaptation of the Dylan Thomas drama Under Milk Wood originally written for radio.
Premiering in 1954, Thomas’s much adapted drama has been produced many times as theatre, film, animation and even an album, and has featured renowned performers in the role of ‘First Voice’ including Thomas himself, Richard Burton, Antony Hopkins and most recently Michael Sheen for the BBC who also heads this National Theatre cast. Like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town which had a solid revival at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 2019, Under Milk Wood explores the various families and experiences in a single village as a community is both dissected by its author and comes together to work, to gossip and to pass the time.
Taking place across 24-hours, liked Wilder, Thomas uses the structure of the day to suggest the endless routine of the villagers in Llareggub, a sense that their lives are ordinary, small and lacking in notable drama while also unchanging, solid and predictable. Mr and Mrs Pugh snipe at each other over every meal, Captain Cat sits in the same chair listening to the sounds of the world outside, Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard cleans her guest-less guesthouse and Mrs Cherry Owen watches her husband get drunk. On the surface, their lives are unremarkable, a place where nothing changes as day becomes night and night becomes day.
Yet, within the confines of this tale, Thomas expands the inner lives and needs of his characters, each haunted by the loss of a loved one, the dream of an unfulfilled life or the expectation of a future happiness that never comes. There is real tenderness in the way Thomas explores these wistful remembrances and the ghostly presence that haunts them all. But far from lifeless and in their own ways frozen in time, their existence in memories, hopes and illusions suffused with these emotion makes them seem more alive than ever.
Lyndsey Turner’s production for the National Theatre understands this completely. Before Thomas can ‘begin at the beginning’ there is some valuable scene setting to be done which gives the evocation of Milk Wood, the village of Llareggub and its community an added purpose by adding a frame, a tool through which the audience can view a wider context and purpose. This additional material written by Sian Owen bookends the play, focusing on Owain Jenkins’s attempts to renew a severed connection with his ailing father Richard. More than an amusing story of yesteryear, the telling of Under Milk Wood thus becomes a heartwarming act of love.
Owen’s sets her adaptation in a Care Home, a place pointedly filled with forgotten people, their age determining that their best years are behind them and, while treated kindly by the nursing staff, there is little to distinguish them from one another. The ten residents shuffle around, watch television and sit in their favourite chair with hobbies and crafts to pass the time – and already the daily trajectory of these characters echoes Thomas’s villagers. Owen’s big idea is to disrupt the routine with the arrival early one morning of Owain Jenkins demanding to see his father out of hours.
This cleverly sets in motion the circumstances that will lead to the slow recreation of Milk Wood and Llareggub as Owain’s desperation to form a lucid connection to the bewildered Richard takes them to a photograph album and ultimately to the famous beginning of Thomas’s drama where, to prompt his father’s memory, Owain assumes the role of First Voice and takes his father back in time hoping to provoke some shared memories of the place and its people. It is a lovely idea, one that gives renewed purpose and distinction to this retelling and is consistently maintained throughout the production as Owain becomes both Richard and the audience’s guide to the world of Llareggub while investing the original narrator character with an emotional investment in the retelling of this story.
Aware of its radio play origins and the lush vocabulary and rhythms of Thomas’s writing, Turner avoids the temptation to ‘act’ the entirety of the piece in the conventional sense. Instead, the simplicity of the Care Home is maintained for far longer than you might expect and Turner doesn’t succumb to audience expectation for some theatre magic to clear away the day room and replace it with the colourful houses and characters of Llareggub immediately. Instead, Turner tries to offer the viewer the best of both worlds, relying on Owain to set the scene using only Thomas’s descriptions, making this part audio drama that requires the audience to use their imagination to conjure the scene – much as Ellen McDougall’s production of Our Town did.
Enhancing the effect, residents and Care Home workers steadily assume the persona of the Under Milk Wood characters, fleetingly at first as they are momentarily enchanted as they pass by Owain, physically adjusting to a new role as he anoints each one with an alter ego like statues coming to life or somnambulists gently reviving before the moment passes and they go on their way. As Owain describes the villagers’ dreams, Turner controls the flow of the early segments of Thomas’s work with care, introducing faint fragments of sound that begin to break down the barrier between past and present, transporting the audience in stages to Llareggub before its inhabitants come to life in full which is timed to coincide with the dawn.
Under Milk Wood doesn’t have a single plot as such so what follows is a series of scenes that meet the same characters at different points in their day, controlled in flows of activity that cross the Olivier stage, all conjured by Owain. There is some clever stagecraft from the National team, particularly set designer Merle Hensel who dispenses with fixed backdrops and uses a series of illustrative props to represent the roles or activities of the villagers. Fluidity is created with rotating table tops and cloths whipped off to instantly move the scene to another household, while actors sharing the same piece of furniture can be in entirely different family set-ups as Thomas light-footedly skips between homes.
This building sense of community and multiple lives being lived simultaneously is well managed in Turner’s production which finds a strong balance between comedy and pathos. The mismatched Pughs are particularly memorable as Cleo Sylvestre’s acidic and controlling wife becomes a bane to Alan David’s scheming husband, ordering books on poisoning and dreaming of dispensing with his spouse. But it is some of the darker moments that linger most and, supported by Tim Lutkin’s lighting design that evolves from the warm orange of daybreak and the spring morning to starker blues and near blackout for the introspective moments, the layers of memory and regret in Thomas’s work are acutely felt.
Particularly affecting is Polly Garter played with a sharp nostalgic yearning by Sian Phillips who sings for her lost loves while evoking all the loneliness of her current and future state. Likewise, Susan Brown’s Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard is tormented by the ghosts of two lost husbands, paralysed by grief as the sun finally goes down, while Antony O’Donnell’s Captain Cat meaningfully observers the village from his window while remembering his lost shipmates and deceased lover Rosie (Kezrena James). Turner’s production has vibrancy and life but is underscored by a fragility, a consciousness that these are just fragments or ghosts exuding from Owain’s mind, a people lost long ago that will dissolve in an instant, and it gives this production a sorrowfulness that is quite affecting.
Nowhere is this more tangibly realised than in the relationship between Owain and Richard that is threaded through the entire piece as a worried son tries to help his father find his way back to their shared memory. Both are on stage for almost the entire show as onlookers in the village scenes, like Scrooge and the trilogy of Christmas Ghosts observing the things that have been. Turner and Owen have together created a strong purpose as Owain tries to provoke his father’s memory which overlays Thomas’s own anthology approach to structurally and emotionally pin this expanded production of Under Milk Wood together, driven by the reawakening of and reconnection with Richard.
Michael Sheen is superb as Owain and gives Thomas’s words a mellifluous reading in what is a complex and demanding role that is as much a feat of stamina and memory as performance. There is excitement and enthusiasm for the village, amusement at its people and poignancy in its more tragic undercurrents, and Sheen eases the audience through all of the changes in pace, tone and direction that Thomas demands. When he accidentally assumes the role of alcoholic Mr Cherry Owen there is some mirroring of Owain’s own personality, himself a secret drinker whose regretful reflections take on a valuable duality.
Yet, some of the very best moments are entirely unscripted and the absorption in Owain’s character is such that Sheen looks constantly to Karl Johnson’s Richard for his reactions to the appearance of every new Llareggub resident. Much of this may go largely unnoticed by an audience distracted by the village scene playing out centre stage, but Sheen is immersed in Owain’s emotional state and commitment to the psychology of his character who hopes that something will trigger in his father’s mind. These tiny moments of care and concern are happening throughout Sheen’s performance, manifesting as Owain’s reason for creating this story and demonstrating a son’s act of love for his father that becomes quietly moving.
Johnson has much less dialogue and hardly speaks at all but emotes all the confusion of his character who sits on the sidelines for large parts of the play unsure what is happening. But Johnson is acting all the time, sometimes lost in Richard’s own world, sometimes captivated by the snatches of something he recognises which develop as the story unfolds, taking him to some unexpected places. There is lots of saddness in Johnson’s portrayal of Richard, a heartfelt pity for the things he has lost but Johnson gives him some hope as well, creating real theatrical power in his final moments with Sheen.
Making Under Milk Wood a story within a story is a risk but one that pays off, adding a tender father-son connection that ties that multifaceted sprawl of Thomas’s story together. The rich tones of Thomas’s language and the splintered nature of the drama may not be to everyone’s taste but it is really exciting to see an older cast being given the opportunity to play characters of all ages. They are utterly convincing as the wide-ranging and lively inhabitants of Llareggub, while subtly reinforcing Owen and Turner’s Care Home concept of individuality revived. After Life and Under Milk Wood are meaningful and compassionate pieces, a strong return to live performance for the National Theatre whose lights are blazing once more.
Under Milk Wood is at the National Theatre until 24 July and is largely sold out but returns are available and the show is part of the Friday Rush scheme. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog