John Russell Taylor on the South Bank.
The National Theatre opened its doors to audiences again in June, with its smallest auditorium the Dorfman being quickly followed by its largest the Olivier (with the Lyttelton belatedly emerging from the Covid lockdown darkness in October). No doubt in a bid to encourage as many punters back as possible, the show chosen to reopen the Olivier was Dylan Thomas’s much-loved lyrical drama Under Milk Wood.
Michael Sheen in Under Milk Wood. Photo credit: Johan Persson.
First, let it be said that the stripped-down in-the-round presentation suits this play very well; after all, it did begin life on radio (in 1954), and ultimately the spoken word is the thing. Second, any fears that may have been engendered by the credit on the programme “additional material by Siân Owen” are immediately justified by a long and lacklustre opening scene littered with references to emails and such, placing most of the familiar characters in an old folks’ home today.
Into this bursts an unfamiliar character, Owen Jenkins (Michael Sheen), who has come to reconcile with his father – or is it to settle old scores? Either or both, possibly, but not to worry; Owen Jenkins soon turns out to be the radio original’s “First Voice”, our narrator and guide to the town of Llareggub. Once we move into dreamtime, and Sheen launches into his great original opening description of the small Welsh seaside community at rest, there is an almost palpable sigh of relief.
Apart from anything else, we know we are in safe hands with Sheen stepping confidently into shoes first worn by Richard Burton. As we are used to his playing a vast variety of world shakers of all nationalities, we tend to forget that originally he is Welsh and clearly delights in being given a chance to return to his roots. When the text moves from Siân Owen’s to vintage Dylan Thomas, it is like the sun emerging from heavy mist, and this is unmistakably one of Sheen’s great performances. That, of course, is crucial to any production, in whatever medium, of Under Milk Wood.
Michael Sheen and Karl Johnson. Photo credit: Johan Persson.
The narration is Thomas at his most eloquent and characteristic. The role might have been, and no doubt was in a sense, written for Thomas himself and his own particular brand of rhetorical delivery. Alec Guinness, who played Thomas on Broadway, was very sniffy about that, saying that it always reminded him of a second-rate evangelical preacher. I suppose that is very much a matter of taste, but obviously Sheen revels in it all, so maybe it helps if you are Welsh. And with this performance, which naturally dominates the evening, who’s complaining?
Not that it goes unchallenged for our attention. How could it, with Siân Phillips playing Mrs Utah Watkins, Mrs Beynon, and, yes of course, Polly Garter, the town’s loose woman, much loved by all – all the men anyway. And inevitably there are other extraordinary characters in Llareggub. (What else would you expect of a town whose name is ‘bugger all’ spelt backwards?) There is old blind Captain Cat, who knows exactly what is going on in Llareggub by sound alone, a beautifully nuanced performance from Anthony O’Donnell. And Mrs Ogmore Pritchard, who is so prim and prudish that she requires the Sun to wipe its shoes before it enters her house, only one of three strongly differentiated characters played by Susan Brown. But, then, three characters is about the norm for this cast of unobtrusively virtuosic actors.
Merle Hensel’s “set” consists of a few chairs and other props, and the costumes are excellent in that they are so congruent with the text that you do not really notice them. Director Lyndsey Turner contrives to keep the interval-free production flowing smoothly in and out of the great lyrical outbursts and ensures that this is a highly enjoyable as well as auspicious opening-up of the Olivier Theatre, after a long dark winter.
The Olivier’s in-the-round configuration was originally chosen for its previous reopening last autumn because it maximized audience capacity under the Covid social-distance restrictions – which were lifted on 19 July. It will be interesting to see if the National Theatre persists with this format after the current programming which already extends into early next year – and perhaps to see how well it works for more traditional plays written for proscenium arch staging.