A question taken from the 2020 English Literature GCSE exam that never was.
It is already, unsurprisingly, sold out for the run.
“Dylan Thomas’ epic poem, Under Milk Wood, is, in literal terms, neither epic nor a poem. Describe how you would deal with the challenges this ‘play for voices’ presents to the modern theatre director. You have 1 hour 45 minutes. No interval. Begin.”
Under Milk Wood is the first production likely to (please God!) do a full run on a National Theatre main stage since Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams in March 2020 (After Life opened at the smaller Dorfman a week ago.) And there are few pieces more fitting for the job.
The text could have been written solely for studying. Not in that horrible way that means you can’t laugh along with the Theaterati intelligentsia around you unless you’ve read at least three opposing interpretations of the phraseology. But in that way where seeing a good production makes you feel just that little smarter for seeing a classic… and getting it.
Oh, National Theatre, how we have missed you.
Let’s see how director Lyndsey Turner has taken on the challenge outlined in this (probable) GCSE question.
Set in the small Welsh village of Llareggub-read it backwards-Under Milk Wood is a series of snapshots of the goings-on behind closed doors of its colourful inhabitants (alive and dead). It is a voyeuristic tale filled with vivid description.
The first challenge for any director is finding an actor strong enough to tell the tale. Someone capable of carrying almost two hours of prose with no narrative development. Someone preferably Welsh.
Unfortunately, Richard Burton is dead.
Your choice–according to IMDB–seems to be Hopkins (done it, too old), Pryce (done it, too Two Popes), Rhys Ifans (done it, too ‘out there’), Timothy Dalton (not done it but forever too Bond) and Michael Sheen (Welsh actor du jour, done it, but who cares?)
Sheen may have been “begin(ning) from the beginning” since he was beginning to speak. Each note of the “sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing” is a huge slap of paint he daubs onto the imagination as he brings the poetic language to life.
Though it takes a while for his performance to stop being so over-handsy, he speaks the text with the authority of someone who has studied every form of every syllable. Many times.
Turner has given context to the narration by setting it in an old people’s home. Sheen’s performance is topped and tailed with simple stage business between elderly residents and staff using text that has been written, inoffensively but forgettably, by Sian Owen.
After 10 minutes or so of pleasantries, Sheen’s Owain Jenkins barges into this gentle environment, all ill-fitting shirt, and with eyes as wild as his hair. He demands to see his father immediately, though it is never made clear why. Side conversations infer that the father-son relationship is devoid of emotion and possibly estranged.
Sheen’s Jenkins may be an alcoholic. He swigs from a bottle of whiskey and white lights scare him when they appear whenever alcohol comes on stage. This may link to the thing he says he may have done last night. This may be why he has come to see his father. And this may be why he wants reconciliation. That’s a lot of supposition and none of it gets clarified.
His father Richard (Karl Jenkins) is suffering from some form of memory loss. We see him as the play opens, walking around the sheet-covered furniture of the day room, confused and disoriented. Visibly upset, he mumbles something about not having the penny he needs.
It is a nod to the characters in one of Thomas’ vignettes and one of many Easter eggs the additional text offers the aficionados in the audience. It is also implied that Richard (Dickie) is the son–and Owain the grandson–of Reverend Eli Jenkins, one of over 60 characters in Under Milk Wood.
A nice enough idea. Though its value is questionable.
A nurse says Richard becomes more lucid when looking through old photographs, which sets up the story being told, not to the audience, but as an attempt to provoke the father’s memory. As the scenes become more vivid, the words are given to the characters themselves, with the supporting cast of 12 bringing a lot of fun to a group of mainly miserable sods.
Worth a mention is Alan David who brings a slyly menacing touch to his performances of two long-suffering husbands. As Mr Pugh, who politely passes the salt to his moaning wife, while flicking through his book on famous poisoners for murderous inspiration. And as Mr Pritchard (partnering with Michael Elwyn as Mr Ogmore) the dead hen-pecked husband(s) of Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard (naturally), who morosely recites the rules she has laid down for them even in death.
Taking advantage of having the builders in to add tabletops to the auditorium seats (for Covid distancing), the Olivier is now in the round. From all sides, simple props are wheeled on and off to transform this Empty Space. A table represents different homes with the swift removal of just a tablecloth. A drugs trolley becomes a kitchen hob, a shopkeeper’s till and, hilariously, a paddling boat on the sea.
Turner has dealt with the obvious challenges through clever choices of casting, construct, and characterisation. It makes for a strong answer to the GCSE exam question.
But that’s also the problem here. You expect more from a National Theatre production than a high-grade GCSE answer.
Setting it in an old people’s home is an idea that could have come from a group of drama students playing “let’s reimagine”. Alluding to them being the Jenkins’ boys adds nothing that I could see. They could as easily have been linked to any character. It’s a conceit that goes nowhere.
And Sheen’s performance, though expertly delivered, feels like it came to the production pre-packaged. As such, it could have slotted into any production of Under Milk Wood. And it probably will be.
But look, Under Milk Wood is solid National Theatre stuff. And I have no quibbles with that. It is already, unsurprisingly, sold out for the run. It would probably still sell out without audience numbers being restricted by Covid.
You are going to see this for Michael Sheen. You are going to see this for Dylan Thomas. You are going to see this just to sit in the Olivier once more. These are all good reasons to see Under Milk Wood. And seeing it will not leave you feeling let down.