Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas

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BBC Wales, 25 December 2014

Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas.  Dir. Michael Sheen.  Perf. Sheen, Kate Burton, Mark Lewis Jones.  BBC Wales, 26 October 2014.  Available online till 24 January 2015 at


Performed on the very stage in New York where Thomas’s legendary voice drama received its premiere in 1952, Michael Sheen’s full-length version was rapturously received by a live audience.


For this listener, this production proved revelatory in several ways.  Until now I had never realized how Under Milk Wood explores people’s inner lives, and how they differ quite radically from their public personae.  Mr. Pugh has great fun thinking up new ways of poisoning his wife, but responds meekly to most of her questions, even when she catches him reading a book suspiciously wrapped in brown paper.  Mae Rose Cottage spends much of her time wishing for love, of the kind customarily found in Harlequin romances, while Captain Cat recalls life with his deceased shipmates.  Part-nostalgic, part-fantastic, such dreams remind us of the fine line separating the imaginative from the actual life; the one informs the other.  Under Milk Wood is a drama that celebrates the power of the moment, when spontaneous thought overwhelms so-called “rational” feelings.  Thomas’s language – sensuous, powerful, assonant – reinforces this belief.


On the other hand Under Milk Wood is a passionate piece that celebrates sexual desire; not only the overt desires of Mae Rose, but the love expressed in the letter from Mog Edwards to Myfanwy Price, or the drunken antics of Cherry Owen as he returns home.  Life might appear respectable on the surface in the small town of Llareggyb, but the citizens’ true feelings are far less polite.  The six members of Sheen’s cast, including Francine Morgan, Mark Lewis Jones, Matthew Aubrey and Kate Burton (daughter of Richard Burton) had a rare old time bringing out the innuendoes in Thomas’s text, much to the audience’s amusement.


Llareggyb might be an imaginary place, but its social and gender divisions are redolent of a bygone era, when men and women were supposed to know their respective places.  The women stayed at home to look after the house, while the men went out to work, came home to eat, and went out to the pub to get drunk.  Thomas sets up that social structure, but throughout the play he is prone to make fun of it: Lord Cut-Glass – apparently at the head of the social pyramid – turns out to be insane in his “kitchen full of time”; while Nogood Boyo fishes in the bay, while dreaming of Mrs. Dai Bread Two and geishas.  Like many characters in the piece, he dreams of a very different world to that of Llareggyb, one that he has probably never visited, but nonetheless free of the social constraints that limit his behavioral possibilities.  Maybe things might change in the future, but in Nogood’s mind at least, that prospect remains a remote one.


As the First Voice, Sheen conjured up a world that was at once recognizable yet remote; one that appealed to the imagination in its haunting description of a dream-like landscape in which anything might happen.  The structure of Under Milk Wood is familiar enough, as it is centered on a single day in the life of the village.  There are familiar rituals, such as going to work, doing the shopping, eating meals and going to bed; but the citizens can also conjure up very different worlds, even while observing such rituals.  This capacity reminds us of Thomas’s unique gifts as a writer – someone who lived for the moment and used it to try to “listen” to people.  He didn’t just listen to what they said; he was also concerned with what they thought as well.  Under Milk Wood explores the distinction between the two modes of expression, and by doing so celebrates the power of thought.  Thomas might have been only thirty-nine when he died, but he had more “real” experiences – understood in this case as exercising the power of the imagination – than most of us experience in far lengthier lifetimes.


This Under Milk Wood was a truly magnificent production, with the six-strong cast taking on a variety of roles, accompanied by telling sound-effects – the toll of the bell, the rustle of the waves, the sound of children in the school playground – that conjured up a world which was at once vanished yet imaginatively highly accessible.