Under Milk Wood at the National Theatre
Dylan Thomas’s masterpiece Under Milk Wood is one of the most beloved plays in modern history. It’s a gorgeous piece of writing with an acute understanding of human bondage and an uncanny use of sound that is sometimes painfully beautiful. It’s particularly wonderful when a performance of it succeeds in every way – and this one by the National Theatre does. Pairing the material with stellar acting and a smart production, this adaptation is a must-see.
It’s not the most conventional of performances. Siân Owen provides additional material, giving a frame narrative to the play: Owain Jenkins (Michael Sheen) is visiting his father Richard (Karl Johnson) in an old people’s home, but his father doesn’t recognise him anymore. Sheen then paints a beautiful picture of his father’s hometown, thus helping him to remember his childhood – and, as such, he becomes the narrator of the original play. Owen’s material is a lot more down-to-earth and conversational than Thomas’s original, but that is to be expected and is fitting. Puritans may take offence to it, but it does offer a very humane and recognisable basis to the intoxicating play – and the text itself is untouched and can live up to its full potential.
The cast is top-notch. Each performance is appropriate, charming and played with a high degree of believability. This is no mean feat, considering a lot of the actors take on two or more roles. Particularly notable are Karl Johnson – whose role is comparatively still, but the more impressive for the emotions the actor needs to display as the ageing father of the narrator – and Michael Sheen himself. Sheen played the first voice in the 2014 BBC film adaptation, and he’s lost none of his energy: in a performance full of wit and delivered to perfection, the melody in his speech is just perfect for the role, and given the new context of this production it’s supported by a particularly rare human element that adds to the feeling of community in village life and the importance of relationships over time.
On top of this, Lyndsey Turner’s directing is fantastic. With Tim Lutkin’s powerful use of lighting and Donato Wharton’s brilliant use of sound, everything looks and sounds just exemplary. It’s an amazing production that deserves and needs to be seen.
Photos: Johan Persson
Under Milk Wood is at the National Theatre from 16th June until 24th July 2021. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch Michael Sheen perform Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night here: