Karl Johnson and Michael Sheen in Under Milk Wood. Photo: Johan Persson
It’s an inspired decision by writer Siân Owen to bring Dylan Thomas’ play back to life at the National Theater. Milk Undergrowth (“A drama for the voices”, written for the radio in 1954) in a retirement home.
It has been recently redecorated and the furniture in the living room is under sheets. Poor Mr. Jenkins (Karl Johnson) has lost his way and finds himself alone and disoriented in an unknown space.
He receives a visit from his son Owain (Michael Sheen) who is dismayed by his father’s lack of recognition and his apparent dementia. In a desperate attempt to shock the frail old man, they look at a photo album together.
Inspired, Owain begins to regale his father (a former schoolmaster) with the past stories of their neighbors – their secrets, pent-up desires and petty crimes – from the Welsh community of Llareggub (“Bugger all” backwards ). As father and son come back to their minds, the elderly residents of the retirement home are changing before our eyes.
We meet a host of colorful characters and witness their daily dramas. Highlights are the nasty and obnoxious Mrs Pugh (Cleo Sylvestre) and her husband (Alan David) having murderous thoughts about his wife and Siân Phillips’ Polly Garter lamenting her lost lovers – Tom, Dick, Harry and dear little Willy Wee. At one point, the whole evokes a herd of cows.
Lyndsey Turner’s impressive production plays in circles, with audiences seated on all sides. This allows us an intimacy with the actors seldom reached in the Olive tree. It’s thrilling to see a veteran cast light up the stage, and Sheen’s passionate storytelling allows Thomas’ poetic prose to soar once again.
It may seem like a rather old-fashioned choice for the National’s grand reopening, but Milk Undergrowth reminds us of the comfort of familiarity and community, the joy of hearing the stories of others, and the rejuvenating power of memory.
Until July 24
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