Olivier, National Theatre – until 24 July 2021
The National Theatre’s staging of Under Milk Wood is far from the first time Dylan Thomas’ poem has been adapted for the stage. It’s easy to see the temptation to perform a work so packed with characters, drifting through a strange, semi-mythical setting encountering one another. Siân Owen’s adaptation puts a framing narrative around Thomas’ work, setting the performance in a care home and positioning the poem as the memories of the elderly residents brought to life by Michael Sheen’s Owain Jenkins, visiting his father. This is a partial success. The fraught relationship between father and son seems a distraction from the poem itself, which is what everyone has come to see. However, when the care home residents transform into the curious residents of Llareggub there is a definite thrill.
Sheen is in his element as the narrator, making Thomas’ much-loved words his own and banishing memories of Richard Burton with a performance that brings the world around him to life. He appears to conjure the characters up, summoning them like a Welsh Prospero and becoming sucked into their lives and the place they inhabit.
Under Milk Wood is almost a Welsh national text, part-incantation, part-social history, part-tall tale. If you stop to think too hard about Thomas’ writing, the piece seems increasingly odd. The tone veers wildly from lyric to intensely dark – a character who dies drinking disinfectant, for example – and includes a number of women whose portrayals seem distinctly odd. It’s also hard to follow, at times, the sequence of characters and events, and the evening tends to blur away into a general atmosphere. But that is what Thomas was so good at creating, and his descriptive sense cannot be challenged.
Sheen leads a fine cast, alongside the great Siân Phillips, always a pleasure to see on stage, Anthony O’Donnell as the blind Captain Cat, Karl Johnson as Sheen’s father, and many others. Lyndsey Turner’s staging is varied and inventive, playing neat tricks with clever moments, including quick-change cloths whisked from tables, leaving plates and cups untouched.
Towards the end, Alan David and Michael Elwyn as Mr Pritchard and Mr Ogmore emerge, eyes glowing like werewolves, to be ordered about by their widow, Mrs Ogmore Pritchard. The Olivier has been reconfigured in the round, which works remarkably well. It seem as though the theatre has been trying to take on this shape since it opened in the late 70s. The shift may be mostly due to Covid, and the need to spread the audience out, but the end result is a newly democratic feel. Under Milk Wood is in most respects a treat to watch, and the return of the National Theatre flagship space is an important phase in the slow crawl towards normality, people gathering in front of stage to watch some of the country’s best actors speaking immortal lines.