Under Milk Wood – National Theatre, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writer: Dylan Thomas, with additional material by Siân Owen

Director: Lyndsey Turner

There is something hypnotic about the words ofUnder Milk Wood. Dylan Thomas’s play was originally written for BBC Radio, and the narrated vignettes of the lives of the villagers of fictional Welsh village Llareggub are as much a celebration of the unique resonances of the accents Thomas knew and grew up with as they are depictions of lives and dreams gone by.

And while the work has transferred to stage and screen several times, it remains, at heart, a feast for the ears to which the other senses must catch up. Furthermore, any new production must acknowledge that the gaslit houses clinging to the hillside between shoreline and forest are artefacts of the past. Thomas’s version of Wales – even in 1954, a romanticised view of a world that was changing – is now far detached from the present day.

The National Theatre’s new production addresses that head on by introducing a new framing structure, constructed by Siân Owen, that sees Michael Sheen’s Owain Jenkins visiting his infirm father Richard (Karl Johnson) in a nursing home.

Jenkins Senior has dementia – the staff at the home comment brightly that he had a lucid moment for a couple of hours two months previous – and Owain, estranged from his family for a long time, struggles to connect. As the staff give him a photo album to show his father in the hope it might trigger some memories, the younger Jenkins begins to recite back the tales that his father told him about growing up in Llareggub as the son of the Reverend Eli Jenkins, one of Thomas’s original characters.

As a way in to the original work, it is initially quite jarring but, once Sheen starts reciting Dylan’s sonorous poetry, the conceit beings to shine. For what is Under Milk Woodbut a series of snapshots, a photo album in performance form of the day in the life of village life as it was.

As the tales unfold, the residents of the care home take on the characters of Thomas’s fictional small town. Some of the roles connect to the players’ lives in the home: Anthony O’Donnell’s pensioner with eye problems becomes the blind Captain Cat; Susan Brown morphs from head nurse into the fastidious, bossy Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard; Lee Mengo’s lackadaisical orderly becomes lazy fisherman Nogood Boyo.

But with all the cast taking on multiple roles, mostly the effect is more dreamlike, conjuring up characters out of nothing and disappearing as quickly as Thomas’s poetry moves around the town looking for somewhere else to rest its eye. That sense of magic is helped by Merle Hensel’s set design and Tim Lutkin’s lighting. Chairs and tables roll on to the stage almost unnoticed as one’s attention is diverted elsewhere. And, in an understatedly clever piece of design, a single table becomes the focal point of many different households through a succession of transformative tricks that match the humour inherent in the play.

Even when we are deep in the poetry of Thomas’s original words, Owen’s new framing device makes its presence felt, often lending new urgency where the original might languor. It offers poignancy, too, when an otherwise largely silent Johnson starts to recall the stories and gets involved, or when Sheen’s Owain looks around to connect with his father due to a shared recollection of the stories, only to find him gone again.

Other parts of Owen’s conceit do not quite hit the mark – there are hints of a reason why Owain is visiting now that are raised and then forgotten. But what it does do is provide a root in the present that allows these stories of the past to still flourish.

An audio version of this play remains the best form in which to connect to the beauty of Dylan Thomas’s original writing. But by opening out the audio album in such a way, Under Milk Wooddelivers on stage as well. In selecting the right frame, a faded photo has come to life once more.

Continues until 24 July 2021

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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