Paul T Davies reviews Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood now playing at the National Theatre, London.
Under Milk Wood.
23 June 2021
“To begin at the beginning…” Except this production doesn’t begin at the beginning of Dylan Thomas’s classic play. The day begins in a care home, where Mr. Jenkins has missed his breakfast and is confused. This additional material by Sian Owen is beautifully naturalistic and has clever hints of the text to come. It’s a bit of a jolt when, into the scene, arrives Mr. Jenkin’s son, (Michael Sheen), who insists on seeing his father, and this urgency has very little explanation behind it. Dishevelled, quickly revealed as having a drink problem, he is the ghost of Dylan Thomas, perhaps saying the goodbye he never got to in real life. Through a photo album, and memories of his grandfather, the Reverend Eli Jenkins, Llareggub edges closer, yet when it is within touching distance, the text is grabbed, rather than embraced.
It’s only when the stage clears, when it becomes bare, that the truism of this play is confirmed- less is more. I loved that it was performed by an older cast, perhaps as a way of reminding the younger generation to never forget. Central to the concept is the relationship between father and son, and Karl Johnson is outstanding as Mr. Jenkins, taking the Reverend’s role in Under Milk Wood, listening with intent, a beautiful performance. Michael Sheen is a great Owain Jenkins and First Voice, speaking the text as if making it up to enthral his father. It’s an excellent ensemble, and a joy to hear Welsh voices on the National stage. Sain Phillips brings dignity and class to Polly Garter, Anthony O’Donnell is a moving Captain Cat and the legendary Alan David is a perfect Mr. Pritchard and Mr. Pugh. Thomas died an alcoholic, and the show acknowledges that in Mrs. Cherry Owen, (the wonderful Kazrena James), being not too thrilled that her husband is a drunk, and in the Sailor’s Arms the struggle with drink is portrayed. The company perform with gusto, aided by Merle Hensel’s terrific design, a quick-fire breakfast sequence and Nogood Boyo’s fishing boat are particular joys.
Inevitably, staged in the round in the cavernous and socially distanced Olivier, some dialogue is lost, and director Lyndsey Turner is occasionally heavy on the concept, with some of the joy in the text lessened in favour of the melancholy. However, it is a bold concept, and when we return to the care home, the repositioning of the Reverend Jenkin’s Evening Prayer towards the end of the play creates a beautiful, and very moving moment, “For whether we last the night or no, I’m sure is always touch-and-go.” Here the interpretation pays off, and, as always, the star of the show is Dylan Thomas.