‘Under Milk Wood’ Review: Michael Sheen Stars in a Tender but Fitful Reimagination of Dylan Thomas

·4-min read

“We are paying you to stay awake and care.” That sounds like an admonition to the audience at the National Theatre’s new production, “Under Milk Wood.” But in fact it’s sensible Susan Brown’s unnamed character’s line to a member of the junior staff of the care-home for the elderly at which she is a supervisor. He’s been asleep on the job again and she’s unhappy because it has meant poor Mr. Jenkins (beautifully bewildered Karl Johnson) has wandered from his room at night and found himself disoriented and scared in the darkened dayroom.

If that scenario seems odd to anyone who has previously heard, read or (more rarely) seen Dylan Thomas’s celebrated 1954 self-styled “play for voices,” that’s because it’s part of the wholly new framing device written for Lyndsey Turner’s new production by Welsh writer Siân Owen.

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On the circular stage of the reconfigured, socially distanced Olivier auditorium, Brown’s character patiently sets about starting up the day’s routine with the residents drifting in to sit and talk and stare into space. But the temperature climbs with the unexpected arrival of Mr. Jenkins’ son Owain (Michael Sheen), whose short-fuse exasperation turns swiftly to anger when his father cannot or will not communicate with him. Calmed by the staff, he and his father begin looking at an old family photograph album and Thomas’s original text takes over, now presented as a portrait of the village of Mr. Jenkins’ not-quite-forgotten past.

The trouble with Thomas’s original, beautifully considered prose — a kind of “lives in the day” rather than “day in the life” — is it’s impressionistic rather than dramatic. Written for BBC Radio, it’s a consciously drifting piece of narration, led by First Voice who revels in detail while describing the dreams of the sleepy and sleeping fairytale town of Llaregyb. In what slowly becomes a collective portrait, voices of other characters flit in and out, but almost all of them are sketches rather than fully drawn people.

Thomas’s often gently witty depictions are beautifully observed, not least the fiercely admonitory Mrs. Pugh (Cleo Sylvestre) and her put-upon husband (ideally gaunt Alan David), who sits at the chilly dinner table with a book covered in a plain brown cover so as to hide its title: “Lives of the Great Poisoners.” There are moments, too, when having characters fleshed out by visible actors lends weight.

Whenever it is staged — it was last seen at the National 25 years ago — the chief problem is the lack of momentum. Characters’ (in)actions lack consequences, which makes it hard to engage with them except on a momentary basis. Owen and Turner’s new frame seeks to address that directly by making Sheen’s character not an inert, impartial observer but a man desperate to tell the story to and with his father in order to connect, to awaken his father’s distracted mind. Previously neutral descriptions are thus charged up, which intermittently animates proceedings.

Having the characters portrayed by the elderly and their carers adds flashes of undeniable pathos. And, like Beckett whose dialogue is enlivened when spoken in an Irish accent, the Welsh cast give the text its full due. Siân Phillips is particularly touching as Polly Garter, wandering and wondering, crooning wistfully of her past love life: “But I always think as we tumble into bed/ Of little Willy Wee who is dead, dead, dead.”

But for all the attempts at contextualizing for added emotional weight, the effort shows. And the more Turner’s direction underlines the text literally, the more the mood is flattened rather than enlivened.

The ultimate moment of connection between father and son is affecting but the production’s dangerous proximity to unearned sentimentality is also visible. And in the foregoing hour and three-quarter running time (with no interval), the sustained inertia grows wearing. There’s welcome tenderness aplenty but, when it comes to storytelling, there’s too much telling and, alas, too little story.

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