Under Milk Wood (Review)
Framed in the bleak surroundings of a worn-out care home, a writer desperately struggles to conjure memories from his father’s childhood in an attempt to reconnect on this uncomfortable visit stained by the all-consuming fog of dementia.
Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood is billed ‘a play for voices’, yet Lyndsey Turner's production at the National starring Michael Sheen created a powerful framing context for this floundering protagonist, with the remaining ‘voices’ being picked up by the ensemble of care home dwellers who multi-roled a diverse spectrum of characters. In an instant, one would transform from a vacant, tired patient to a young woman by her window at night, longing for her secret lover. Their stories were illuminated and fabricated by Thomas’ unstoppable wordplay and their narratives, while each small, were beautiful and unending in their own right. Together, they contributed to the tapestry of Llareggub, the sleepy Welsh town that was the setting for this unexpected performance.
More importantly, however, these stories contributed to the father’s jumbled memories of his childhood and flashing between them, with the aid of inventive lighting and soundscapes, emphasised their fleeting nature; perfectly real yet just out of reach. The father was positioned as a spectator for the majority of the performance, gazing aimlessly at the tales that unfolded before him which created the confusion and lack of agency that are caused by dementia.
"Sheen worked with the dominance and mastery of a sculptor expressing nervous excitement at the apparition of his creations."
Sheen’s performance was relentlessly brilliant; he is a veteran when it comes to Thomas’ poetry having starred in the 2014 BBC version of the same play. This character, however, was a writer going through dark times who was in need of his father. His frenetic energy betrayed a frantic instability reminiscent of a lost child. His words ran away with his imagination as he traversed every corner (it was actually staged in the round) of the stage, building streets, love-letters, rumours, and eventually entire lives out of thin air. He worked with the dominance and mastery of a sculptor, expressing nervous excitement at the apparition of his creations. Yet, his performance was underscored with a sense of urgency; an ill-fated desperation to rebuild the relationship that he might have had with his father, had their roles not been so tragically reversed. This is, from personal experience, the reality of the children of those suffering from dementia. In this case the listener did not just become, but was forced to become, the storyteller, just as the dependant is forced to become the carer.
For a play that is so centred around memory, and how we paint our childhood in a nostalgic hue when we revisit it, I am somewhat surprised Under Milk Wood has never been drawn in relation to dementia. (N.B. there have been a lot of productions; the likes of Elton John and Tom Jones have been involved, but the tendency is to ‘begin at the beginning’, as instructs the first line of the play rather that create a new framing device as the NT have done here.) This decision instilled the performance with a relevance and empathy of which Thomas’ writing is more than worthy. His language explores each of the senses and folk music contributed to the creation and interaction of memory and nostalgia; characters were singing sang drunkenly in pubs as well as alone amongst their washing lines, and it stimulated a guiding warmth and familiarity that carried us through their stories.
"An accurate representation of the bittersweet, fleeting moments of joy that surface against the all-consuming tragedy of dementia."
What struck me as the most relevant to the struggle of dementia patients’ loved ones was the lack of resolution. While the performance seemed to crescendo towards the end, we were suddenly and harshly faced with the reality that the father would not remember. All of the tireless work, and the emotional burden that accompanied it, had been for nought, and a brief hug was the only resolution we saw. The memories, so vivid only seconds before, had been locked back up into the past. This was an accurate representation of the bittersweet, fleeting moments of joy that surface against the all-consuming tragedy of dementia. There can be moments of hope, and joy, but they seldom win. I can personally testify for the frustration that is caused by the misrepresentation of this illness on both stage and screen and the NT provided refreshing respite from this through their subtlety and choice of play. This performance led us through hardship and out the other side, which provided a surprising and much needed catharsis. We can get through even the most hopeless of times, and this fantastic production encourages us to revisit, accept, and move on from the past, no matter how challenging that may be. My god I’ve missed theatre.