Under Milk Wood needs to be heard not seen
but Michael Sheen is brilliant
“To begin at the beginning: It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched courters-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea.”
Opening lines of Under Milk Wood
Dylan Thomas worked on Under Milk Wood, a BBC commission which he described as “a play for voices” but he didn’t live to see, or rather to hear its first production in 1954, read by Richard Burton, who was then in his twenties.
So where is Milk Wood and what does it mean. The phrase “milk wood” meant nothingness or worthlessness but this original slang meaning has long since been replaced by it being a work by Dylan Thomas. Llareggub (yes, it is bugger all backwards! Dylan Thomas’s less subtle humour) is a fictional Welsh fishing village. It is often claimed to be based on the real Laugharne in Carmarthenshire but you can imagine that because of the desire of tourists to visit this mythical Welsh place, there are several claimants.
The film made in 2014 was filmed in Solva Pembrokeshire. A sketch in the National Library of Wales which Dylan Thomas drew of the fictional village when he started working on Under Milk Wood looks remarkably like New Quay, Cardigan Bay. In 1945 when he started writing Under Milk Wood he was also staying in New Quay.
Lyndsey Turner’s production sets the main text in a care home for the elderly with Michael Sheen as Owain Jenkins visiting his father whom he tells us was a headmaster for 30 years. The Reverend Richard Jenkins (Karl Johnson) has a failing memory, maybe dementia, and using an album of old photographs, his son tries to awaken his memory of things earlier in his life.
Siân Owen has provided the original material for the care home setting and each of the residents, with a costume change, will play the residents of Llareggub. It reminded me of the mystery play device when local villagers and tradesmen would act in the Bible stories.
However as Owain Jenkins starts to talk to his father, the care home residents begin to fall asleep. Later individuals walk across and around the stage, wheeling trolleys or using wheeled walkers, which I found very distracting and their progress took my attention away from Dylan Thomas’s words. If what we take away from theatre is the visual, I want to close my eyes and listen to Michael Sheen. Perhaps I should have done that?
The first thing you notice about this care home is the unlikely proportion of men to women. Every care home I’ve been into has more than seven times as many women as men but here the men seem to outnumber the women. Maybe it’s the diet of laverbread?
Michael Sheen is free to use his full Welsh accent here and his mellifluous tones combined with Dylan Thomas’s powerful imagery, his rhythmic alliterative words are hypnotic and calming. The descriptions are original, free of clichés and remind us of a great poet.
Bravo to the National Theatre in giving Dylan Thomas’s work such prominence and hopefully to introduce his work to a generation that didn’t study it at school, or to allow those who had to study at school to really enjoy Under Milk Wood now.
If you are unable to get Friday Rush tickets to this sold out production, there is a screening planned and you could also listen to Richard Burton’s 1954 radio recording for the BBC.
Under Milk Wood
Written by Dylan Thomas
Directed by Lyndsey Turner
Ifan Huw Dafydd
Director: Lyndsey Turner
Designer: Merle Hensel
Lighting Designer: Tim Lutkin
Sound Designer and additional compositions: Donato Wharton
Songs composed by: Edward Rhys-Harry
Movement: Imogen Knight
Running Time: One hour 45 minutes minutes without an interval
Booking to 24th July2021 but sold out.
Friday Rush tickets available.
Royal National Theatre
London SE1 9PX
Phone: 020 7452 3000
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Olivier
at the matinée on 1st July 2021