By Acacia Caven
The National Theatre’s most recent adaptation of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood blends old with new in an emotional navigation through the town of Llareggub (try it backwards) and its inhabitants. Repackaged by Siân Owen, Thomas’ (arguably over-adapted) 1954 text is given new life through the addition of a framing story that situates the action in a small care home, somewhere in Wales. Directed by the award-winning Lyndsey Turner, a text originally written for radio is infused with new depth and emotion as we watch a struggling alcoholic writer – played by Michael Sheen – attempt to trigger his demented father’s memories.
Drawing out the humour from the mad-cap, rambling lyricism of Thomas’ original one act ‘play for voices’, Sheen is electric. His presence is intense and bewildering – he bursts onto the in-the-round stage, centres himself, and remains there for the rest of the performance. Displaying no direct influence from the actors that read the iconic poetry before him, Sheen plays Owain Jenkins as angry, heartbroken and wild with excitement – all at the same time. He conjures various characters, lives and memories for his father, also Mr Jenkins (Karl Johnson), in a desperate attempt to make him remember himself. This new reworking does more for Thomas’ words than many before – excluding, perhaps, Keith Allen’s 2015 film adaptation – in regard to making it accessible to a modern audience. One example is the choice to give the omniscient narrative presence, ‘First voice,’ a tangible identity and purpose through Sheen. In this way, the added framing narrative contextualises the play, allowing differences across time and space to add to, rather than detract from, the overall message. While the lifestyle of Llareggub and the words of Dylan Thomas may be considered markers of Welsh culture, many elements are perhaps less relatable in the modern day. However, in this performance, even Thomas’ (already beloved) poetry seems rejuvenated, and is given immediacy and freshness by Sheen, who conjures the words as if he were Thomas himself.
It is a mesmerising return to live performances for the National. Staged in the Olivier – which has been reconfigured since its closure in 2020 – to a socially distanced skeleton audience (only 500 in a 1,129-capacity theatre), the casting choices are especially poignant in the wake of the pandemic. After a year of loss, and the inequal impact of the pandemic on care homes in the UK, Turner brings together an aging, yet undeniably spritely, 14-person ensemble company including Karl Johnson, Siân Phillips and Alan David. When entering the auditorium, one sees a stage full of furniture, covered in white sheets. A reminder of how long the theatre has sat unused. The effects of the last two years are not ignored in the production, rather, they are carefully acknowledged. The play builds on feelings of melancholy and nostalgia, balanced by Thomas’ dry wit and bizarre humour – for example, the delightful interactions between Mr and Mrs Pugh (played by Alan David and Cleo Sylvestre, respectively) – but, even further, the in-the-round staging displays the two-meter distancing between players (all except the father-son duo) without centralising it. The realities of the pandemic are unavoidable in live performance, yet the production is so engrossing, so fluid, that even such restrictions seem intentional and add depth.
Emphasised by Owen’s framing script, the play highlights themes from Thomas’ original work; age, death, memory and alcoholism are central. With their wavering Welsh accents and shuffling steps, juxtaposed against equally sharp movements when needed, the elderly players evoke pathos from the audience, and the slow pace matches the dream-state that we seem to be inhabiting. The stilted (in)action of the script – its changing scenes and drifting, shifting focus – which designates Under Milk Wood as a text to be heard, rather than seen, is still noticeable. Often, it feels tedious, and the audience yearns for some deeper emotional connection, some more information, on any of the inhabitants of Llareggub. Yet, these instincts are mediated by the framing script. We are accompanied on our journey by Sheen and Johnson, and their emotional connection, their character arcs and actions, give Thomas’ words an emotional tangibility that has arguably been lacking in previous live renditions. The lines between ‘reality’ and ‘memory’ blur, not just for Old Mr Jenkins, but also for the audience, and the characters – who occasionally forget to switch their slippers for heels, their hairnets for hats.
The intentionality of such actions is emphasised by the minimalism of the stage itself. When in the care home, there is a semblance of normality: well-lit, waiting room aesthetics, filled with Zimmer frames and knitting needles, but once we enter Llareggub the set is stripped bare – lit only by a single red light that brightens and dims depending on the tone and size of the scene and its players. Part of the beauty is that, aside from costumes, the thread of the care home is carried through the play by the opening scene props being repurposed throughout the show; “Nogood Boyo goes out in // the dinghy Zanzibar” exclaims Sheen, and we see Nogood Boyo paddle past in a laundry bin with ‘Zanzibar’ written on a piece of paper stuck to the side (Under Milk Wood 1.2). The lines between reality and fantasy, intention and chance, are constantly in flux as they blur and bend to fit Thomas’ – no Turner’s – no Sheen’s, narrative.
Overall, the company has pulled off an incredibly complex performance. The costume changes, repeated exits and entrances, multiple characters per performer, and constant rotation of props – in combination with Thomas’ tongue-twisting poetry – make its successes even more powerful. Admittedly, it is a little jarring at first, the switch from Siân Owen’s contemporary, ‘realistic’, language of the care home to a script that is written to be read off a page, not learnt by rote. Especially a script so detailed and full of rich imagery and poetic license as Under Milk Wood. However, Sheen carries all the gravitas of a ringmaster, and we are soon drawn in and guided through the complexities of both language and multiplicity through his centring presence. The relationship between Old Mr Jenkins (Johnson) and his son (Sheen) is really the defining emotional thread of the play. Love, forgiveness, humanity: all correlate through and under their relationship arc and the framing narrative that consecrates it.
“It all gets jumbled – stuff from now and things from then, things from before” (Thomas and Owen 1.1), says Kezrena James as Kelly when Owain Jenkins first realises his father doesn’t recognise him. That concept is drawn through and unifies the two realities that we simultaneously inhabit – certain elements of the relationships within the care home that are established in the opening scene are carried through, and thread together the different vignettes and characters we encounter. Although, at times, it feels as though they themselves don’t understand what they’re doing, any confusion is facilitated by their positioning as patients of care. The performance is reminiscent of Suzanne Osten’s 2006 film, Wellkåmm to Verona, with its intangibility, ethereal lighting, multiple, changing uses for both people and props, and dreamlike (sometimes nightmare-like) presentation; all contextualising this as the elder Jenkins’ reality, therefore, a reality filtered by dementia. In this sense, even the extensive running time seems intentional – just under two hours, the play begins to drag in the last thirty minutes. The original ‘loose ends’ from the beginning of the performance (so to speak) are tied up in a delightfully nightmarish kiss scene, where Johnson faces his character’s tormentors from childhood and seems to be about to break down, before Sheen retakes the tiller and rescues him from drowning in memory. To continue seems pointless in a way.
But Turner does fantastically present the lives that we watch unfold as a community that is salty, sultry, and swashbuckling – in memory – and we feel a tenderness for the characters that is encouraged by Thomas’ language. For all their predispositions towards being caricatures, being performed by older thespians gives them a nostalgic tendency, and we recognise something of ourselves, of the human condition, in them and their roles. Any restlessness in the audience is quelled when we see “blind Captain Cat” (Anthony O’Donnell) meet his one true sea love, Rosie Probert, in his dreams. Here, the core messages of love, forgiveness and memory are reminded to the viewers. These notions circulate and solidify around Old Mr Jenkins. Temporality ceases to exist – at one point Karl Johnson seems to be simultaneously Mr Jenkins in the present, Mr Jenkins in the past, and his father in the past. We are reminded of the opening scene, the nightmare scene: Johnson alone on a darkened stage with swirling lights and disembodied voices around him. This, Turner tells us, is his (Mr Jenkins’) reality. When he is the Reverend Eli Jenkins, he is lucid and concise, but when he is himself, Dickie Jenkins (by extension, Old Mr Jenkins), everything is seemingly chaos. Time has no purpose – just like for Lord Cut-glass in his kitchen of clocks – lives overlap and run into one another; we are all connected.
In this, as in much else of the play, Sheen is the crowning glory. At one point concurrently Cherry Owens, Owain Jenkins, (Dylan Thomas) and Reverend Eli Jenkins’ father too, he and Turner take what was originally a humorous thread in the play – the alcoholism and debauchery that Thomas so enjoyed belittling – and present it as a, if not the, problem. Sheen’s characters intersect through time and space in the dream state he has created for his father, and we see that alcohol problems are central to their estrangements and failures. “Poor Dad, to die of drink and agriculture” (Under Milk Wood 1.2), says Johnson pointedly, before leaving Sheen alone on a darkened stage, with only the raucous sounds of a ghostly bar to accompany him. It is, of course, a nod to the life of Thomas himself, and a little on the nose perhaps – but not badly done, if only because it uses the words of Thomas himself.
And it is undeniable that it is Thomas’ words, the text behind the performance, that makes this play a success. In every rendition of Under Milk Wood – be it film, radio, text, or play, it is the language that makes it so enthralling. That too, the National has pushed further in this performance. One must appreciate the restraint demonstrated when it comes to additional diegetic sound; some Bach for Organ Morgan, some sound effects of birds and bells to establish the spring season, some overlayed voices to really enhance the ghostly element of certain scenes. And, with 13 of the 14-strong-ensemble being Welsh, every word feels authentic. There is no stumbling over alliteration, no awkwardness around the onomatopoeia. Thomas’ poetry sings out in every line – and if the audience is not awed by that, the memory it takes to learn such lines is awe-inspiring enough.
Overall, what the National seems to be going for in this play is honest, simple, acting, with a beautiful script and a powerful, poignant cast. There is a simplicity to the production that allows the focus to remain on the text, its delivery, and the messages it contains. Exploring memory, community and interconnected lives, The National Theatre’s first play since theatres were allowed to reopen pays homage to Britain’s elderly and gives new life to an iconic text.
The Olivier, National Theatre
Capacity: 1,129 socially distanced to 500
Opened: June 23, 2021, Running to July 24.
Running time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.
Production: A National Theatre presentation of a play in one act by Dylan Thomas, additional material by Siân Owen.
Crew: Directed by Lyndsey Turner; Sets and costumes, Merle Hensel; Lighting, Tim Lutkin; Sound, Donato Wharton; Movement, Imogen Knight; Production Stage Manager, Shane Thom.
Cast: Michael Sheen, Karl Johnson, Susan Brown, Ifan Huw Dafydd, Gillian Elisa, Michael Elwyn, Kezrena James, Andrew Macbean, Lee Mengo, Gaynor Morgan Rees, Anthony O’Donnell, Siân Phillips, Cleo Sylvestre.
Music By: Edward Rhys-Harry.
Acacia Caven is a current student of the MA Literature Today at Utrecht University. Born in Zimbabwe and raised in the UK, Acacia provides a personal, international perspective on literary topics. Her experience as Editor-in-Chief of Expanded Field has helped her develop an understanding and critical eye for creative writing in many (experimental) forms. Her recent work centers around contemporary literature and post-colonial voices, both in text and on stage.
- Thomas, Dylan, and Siân Owen. Under Mik Wood. Directed By Lyndsey Turner, 2021, The National Theatre at Home, https://www.ntathome.com/videos/under-milk-wood-full-play.