Michael Sheen stars in Under Milk Wood, a heavily adapted production of the play by Dylan Thomas. Now on the National Theatre’s Olivier stage, the play is set in a care home for the elderly. Michael Sheen guides us as a master storyteller, leading me into the same dream-like state that the characters of the play undergo.
Sheen bursts on stage, anxious to see his father who is a resident of the care home. The staff try to calm him and remind him of how to interact with his father, who is unable to recognise his son and is losing his memory, presumably from dementia. A nurse suggests flipping through a picture book to jog his memory but instead, Sheen decides to tell him stories — this is where the original narrative of the play kicks in. Through the act of storytelling, the father gains moments of lucidity, finally speaking and singing aloud. Even though they are immersed in a surreal, fictional world, the father and son are able to engage in a way they cannot do in the mundane reality of the care home. This makes an excellent case for the significance of storytelling and theatre in the development and wellbeing of all people and their relationships.
The quotation from Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 springs to mind: ‘There’s only one thing more boring than listening to other people’s dreams, and that’s listening to their problems.’ However, this is only due to the play entirely disproving this hypothesis. I find the staging of this play enables the most fascinating portrayal of dreams: beautiful soundscapes are created, with voices echoing off the back of the auditorium and dogs barking off-stage; tablecloths are whipped off tables to demonstrate location change and lights emanate from the brims of men’s bowler hats. Such small details perfectly emulate the vague-yet-particular signature style of all our dreams.
Staged in the round, the entire audience is immersed in the behaviour of the ensemble cast, who effortlessly take on multiple roles. In one particularly striking moment, the senior cast, along with their nurses from the care home, take on the roles of children, playing kissing games in a playground. To see the actors break out of the physical inhibitions of older characters is pure joy, if a little eery.
Sheen’s delivery zips through the narrative and he maintains complete ownership over the storyline whilst also darting around the stage, witnessing snippets of people’s lives with fresh eyes. Despite his undeniable pace, the play does drag a little, not helped by being 1 hour 50 minutes without an interval. I also find myself a little confused and insecure in my understanding of the action but I allow myself to relax into it, lulled by Sheen’s storytelling. As the house lights finally go up, we awake, a little sad at the return to reality.
Under Milk Wood is playing the National Theatre until 24th July 2021. For more information and tickets, see The National Theatre’s website.