The vast majority of the material released via National Theatre At Home predates the pandemic, which is hardly surprising but does mean that the chances are you have seen it before – at least if you’re a theatre goer in London. This is less likely with one of their latest additions to their increasingly impressive roster of shows. For it only appeared at the venue itself back in June this year (under socially distanced conditions) so it’s a real bonus to be able to see this acclaimed version of Under Milk Wood quite so soon.
This is probably the most famous piece to emerge from the pen of Dylan Thomas and was originally conceived as “A Play For Voices” being performed on the radio in 1954. There have, of course, been many versions since including, despite the presence of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, a rather ropey film in the early 1970s. One of the other actors who appeared in this was Siân Phillips who, at the ripe old age of 88, turns up in this latest version too as young mother Polly Garter. For that’s the USP of this latest iteration; the majority of the cast are long past pensionable age (but presumably all double vaccinated therefore likely to be less at risk) and bring decades of expertise to bear on Thomas’ ripe and bounteous text about a day in the life of a Welsh village.
There’s a framing device written by Siân Owen to make all this work which, given the last eighteen months, pertinently takes as its setting a care home with its assorted staff and residents. One of the latter, Richard Jenkins (Karl Johnson) is precipitately visited by his son Owain (who never normally does so) and discovers that the old man is suffering from dementia. In an attempt to wrest him from its dreaded clutches he shows his father photos of his childhood days when his own father Eli Jenkins was the local priest in Llareggub – the setting for the main play. Thus, Owain becomes the celebrated narrator of the piece declaiming Thomas’s sparkling prose and introducing the characters who make up the village. And what characters they are – the snobby Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard and the ghosts of her two dead husbands, the old blind seaman Captain Cat dreaming of lost love Rosie Probert, Mr Pugh who wants to poison Mrs Pugh, the postman Willy Nilly whose wife steams open the mail before it is delivered, Mr Beynon the butcher with questionable meat products and his daughter Gossamer the schoolteacher, the bigamist baker Dai Bread. Some forty or so named characters appear in the text; just 14 actors play them all.
Leading the whole enterprise as Owain/narrator is the inimitable Michael Sheen who brings huge energy to his role and manages the whole enterprise like an orchestra conductor on substances. He has the appearance of an unkempt and very sweaty Druidic bard as he tries to bring his father out of the fug of his own mind; like Burton and Antony Hopkins before him was clearly born to play the role and succeeds magnificently. The frame device character he plays is an alcoholic so when Llareggub’s resident drunk, Mr Cherry Owen, enters the narrative Sheen gleefully plays him too. Amongst the rest of the cast, the stand outs are Susan Brown as the care home supervisor/Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard/Gossamer Beynon/one of the two baker’s wives, Anthony O’Donnell as Captain Cat and Alan David and Cleo Sylvestre who play the glacial Pughs with an eye to the black comedy. Siân Phillips also impresses as Polly Garter doing the laundry and crooning songs to her lost love.
Although the main play starts just with just the stipulated voices, costumes, props and some delightfully clever settings (a fishing boat formed from a laundry cart) are soon added to retain visual interest in this in the round staging directed by Lyndsey Turner. Tim Lutkin’s lighting design is a triumph as it picks out the various characters who fade into the narrative and, just as quickly, fade out again. Under Milk Wood is far from an easy play to stage and keep to the author’s intentions. While this departs (quite radically at times) from Thomas’ original it still manages to evoke the time, place and circumstances as fully as if it were freshly minted; the framing device also serves to give Sheen’s narration and urgency an immediacy that it might otherwise not have. And what a joy to see this advanced in years cast having a ball – quite different from the start of the pandemic when it was the older actors who were shuffled off to one side. If nothing else it gives me some hope!
Production photos by Johan Persson
Today’s bonus Scenes For Survival piece is also one for the past retirement brigade. In John Rebus: The Lockdown Blues, Ian Rankin’s famous detective is brought to life by Brian Cox. Like everyone else he’s in the soul destroying lockdown and loathing it; indeed, he begins to understand how it has been for the many criminals he has put behind bars. A classy performance (of course) in a piece with which I could partly identify
Under Milk Wood is available on National Theatre At Home – click here
Scenes For Survival pieces are available from the NTS website – click here; a number are also available on BBC iPlayer – click here
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