Less a work of drama than a linguistic ritual, the half-whimsical, half-eldritch murmurings of Dylan Thomas’s masterwork ‘Under Milk Wood’ don’t really allow for broad interpretation.
Still, much as Lyndsey Turner’s Olivier Theatre-reopening NT production of the 1954 play for voices revolves around getting lockdown legend and general Welsh icon Michael Sheen to recite Thomas’s opus about the living and dead inhabitants of the fictional town of Llareggub… there is in fact a concept too.
Turner’s in-the-round production is set in an old folks’ home, with its denizens gradually becoming caught up in the play’s irresistible gravity. That’s not what Thomas wrote, of course, so playwright Sian Owen has penned an agreeable plain English lead-in that gently introduces us to the home and its inhabitants. There is prolonged light banter between staff and residents before Sheen’s bushy-haired, wild-eyed Owain Jenkins barges in, demanding to see his father, Karl Johnson’s no-longer-himself Richard Jenkins, and proceeds to start performing ‘Under Milk Wood’ in an attempt to jolt him back to reality.
There is an inference that ‘Under Milk Wood’ character Reverend Eli Jenkins is Owain’s grandfather and Richard’s dad, though it may be that this is some sort of shared fantasy world of theirs, or possibly they are both simply big fans of Thomas. The whole home thing is a nice enough idea that ambles on agreeably… but it’s a thrill when the play proper starts: it feels like the air suddenly fizzes and crackles when Sheen’s narrator introduces us to Llareggub on one ‘starless and Bible-black’ night. Ultimately, the care home business feels minor and diversionary, a framework to (kind of) explain why the poem is being performed. But it doesn’t really have a payoff or purpose beyond the performance of the poem itself.
I'm not sure anyone really needs my opinion on ‘Under Milk Wood’ as Thomas wrote it. But for what it’s worth I think it’s brilliant – time hasn’t dimmed it, his language remains bracingly wild, elemental and weird. And this is a very good, detailed performance of it – Sheen is impassioned and urgent, like he’s electrified by the surging language; the cast of mostly older actors tend to get more playful roles, and seem to be having terrific fun. Thought has clearly been lavished on every second – even deep in Turner and her team find striking new ways to animate the action, actors pretending to be cows; ghosts with illuminated hats.
Despite, all the love poured into it never amounts to something that feels transcendent. I had the sense that Turner’s production was somewhat indebted to ‘GATZ’, Elevator Repair Service’s epic stage version of ‘The Great Gatsby’, but where that was a perfect synthesis of words and form, this feels like immortal words, brilliantly performed, tied to a somewhat inessential concept.
Still, in many ways it feels like quibbling to focus on anything more than Thomas’s text, which remains remarkable. You bought your tickets to see Michael Sheen doing ‘Under Milk Wood’ and you’ve got Michael Sheen doing ‘Under Milk Wood’ – nobody’s going to feel disappointed.
‘Under Milk Wood’ is sold out but fresh tickets go on sale every Friday at noon.