Under Milk Wood review – Michael Sheen steps into Dylan Thomas’s bygone world

National Theatre, London
Lyndsey Turner’s production is a charming albeit emotionally distanced retreat into nostalgia

Dylan Thomas’s drama, broadcast on radio in 1954 , has been recited by pre-eminent Welsh voices from Thomas himself to Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins. Now Michael Sheen gives us this day in the life of Llareggub, Thomas’s fictitious seaside village in Wales. It is hard to go wrong with this tour de force of oral poetry which oozes word pictures and onomatopoeic musicality. Lyndsey Turner’s production does it justice, accentuating the earthy comedy and romanticism of intimately lived village life. It tries to capture Thomas’s pace too: gorgeous linguistic sprints that turn to a quiet maudlin ambling.

Sheen – shaggy, bearded and full of humanity – leads as the narrator but this is really an ensemble show, animated with amusing turns by Siân Phillips, Cleo Sylvestre and Ifan Huw Dafydd among others. It comes with an inventive framing device (additional material is written by Siân Owen) in which Sheen plays the son of Richard Jenkins (Karl Johnson), who is losing his bearings when he is visited by Jenkins Junior in his nursing home. Thomas’s narrative is used to jog Jenkins’s memory and bring him back to the present moment, and to his son. The father-son relationship contains powerful undercurrents of tension and unspoken history, and is movingly performed by both actors.

It is a joy to see so many performers on stage after the minimalism of lockdown monologues. The framing device, full of motley residents and sunny carers, might feel a little flimsy in itself – we burst in and out of Thomas’s drama as if it were a dream or spell – but is resonant in the aftermath of the pandemic, even if the home is a little romanticised (carers hum with positivity while residents seem happy and busy in their infirmity).

Karl Johnson plays Richard Jenkins.
Karl Johnson plays Richard Jenkins. Photograph: Johan Persson

The elderly characters are shown to be “playing” Thomas’s villagers, some still wearing slippers even when they have had a costume change, and they seem at times like sad or sinister marionettes manipulated by Thomas’s drama, which begins to look and feel hallucinatory.

The Olivier theatre, in the round, has a cosy feel which suits the nursing home setting and Merle Hensel’s set design, arranged and rearranged with mobile furniture wheeled on at speed, is deft and malleable. Tim Lutkin’s lighting captures the changes from night to day and then to dusk, and is the strongest feature of the stagecraft.

The humour is eked out, as well as the intrigue of sexual passions and marital infidelities (the Pughs’ icy marriage is a highlight). But the drama as a whole – beyond the father and son dynamic of the framing device – remains emotionally distant as one vignette after another is delivered and feels a little wrung out as Thomas’s language loses some of its richness (he died without having revised or edited the piece fully).

While this is a charming production that bewitches, it begs the question of why a drama that is so consciously retreating into the past is revived now, and how it speaks to our pandemic landscape. Thomas draws a picture of a place steeped in stasis and saturated in nostalgia. Time has stood still here, as Thomas makes clear in the symbolism of the village clock’s frozen hands, and it arguably represents his yearning for a bygone world after the second world war. This production seems entirely conscious of its retreat into the past and it resembles a lost world that is both comforting and jarring after the horrors of the pandemic.

  • Under Milk Wood is at the National’s Olivier theatre until 24 July.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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