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Review on J’Ouvert and Under Milk Wood’s Happy Days

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Review on J’Ouvert and Under Milk Wood’s Happy Days
Review on J’Ouvert and Under Milk Wood’s Happy Days

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July 30, 2021 3:54 am
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It’s an unlikely phenomenon in the West End. Women slamming their arguments against the fourth wall of a proscenium arch theater as if it were a wall of death. For the past two years, Emilia and Six have brought feminism to farthingales. Now J’Ouvert, the third play in producer Sonia Friedman’s Re:Emerge season at the Pinter, roars across the stage in Lycra and feathers and sequins, turquoise and pink and scarlet, thrusting and abrasive. It is greeted, even by a socially distancing crowd, suppressed by Covid-regs, with cheers and buzz between the stalls: in other circumstances there would be dancing.

The play by Yasmin Joseph, first shown at Theatre503 two years ago, is set during the Notting Hill Carnival shortly after the Grenfell fire; the tower is not mentioned by name, but there is talk of loss, and there are other shadows that weave through director Rebekah Murrell’s lavish debut production. There is affection but also division between the two young black women, played forcefully by Gabrielle Brooks and Sapphire Joy, as one tries to express himself in dance, the other in swear words; there is a struggle between them and their serious partner Nisha (Annice Boparai); there are sour memories of exclusion by white residents. Most striking is the division between the boastful youngsters who think they have the right to touch and the women who reject them: oh, the excitement when Joy throws a punch.

Claudia Jones, the arsonist who felt that black women were not always welcome in Britain’s communist party of the 1950s and who helped lay the groundwork for Carnival, is invoked as ancestor guide, in random moments of misty otherness. The piece, which is well accompanied by DJ Zuyane Russell, does not need this spirit level. It is strong in celebrating companionship and carnal contact. “In a world of swipes and pixels, carnival is a touch.” The same can be said of live theatre. Karl Johnson and Michael Sheen in Under Milk Wood at the National. Karl Johnson and Michael Sheen in Under Milk Wood at the National. Photo: Johan Persson

The National has transformed the Olivier stage—notoriously too wide for easy handling—invitingly into the lap. It is a good choice for Lyndsey Turner’s production of Under Milk Wood. Dylan Thomas’s ‘play for voices’ from 1954 is magical up the “dead sweethearts” of the village of Llareggub (read it backwards) in enveloping poetic prose. There are times when the dimly lit rows of spectators on the other side of the stage look like a settlement on the slopes of a hill.

In the center is a wild-haired Michael Sheen mighty but never grand, gracefully carrying the extraordinary weight of the dense narration. There are versatile, multitasking cameos from Susan Brown and Siân Phillips, the latter playing – and singing – as the nostalgic sexpot Polly Garter, and a fine, melancholic performance by Karl Johnson. Comic moments of Thomas’ play, especially the one with a sneaking potential wife-poisoner, come up fresh.

Thomas’s rippling evocations are spun so tightly that even seeing the speaker is confusing

Still, the evening seems misunderstood to me. Siân Owen’s “Additional Material” squeezes the action too clearly into 21st century and “relevance”. in a care home, a man (Sheen) visits his elderly father (Johnson), seeking reconciliation, and brings fragments of the past to his failing memory. It’s a logical device, but suggests a lack of faith in Thomas’s original. As a lifelong listener of the piece, I also wonder whether its special qualities will not always diminish with the addition of image. The rippling evocations – the “sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishing boat bobbing sea” – are spun so tightly that even seeing the speaker is confusing.

Thomas’ scenes are subject to great variation. As a child, magnetized by Richard Burton’s narration, I was carried away by its juiciness, jokes and sadness. More recently, I was enchanted by the lesser-known, less sweet audio production of George Martin (1988), which featured Bonnie Tyler, Mark Knopfler, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Pryce (oh and Siân Phillips), with music by Elton John. Very different, but both versions stuck to Thomas’ idea that viewers, like his blind narrator, did not see the action, but were imbued with it, swimming between dream and everyday life, past and present. Under Milk Wood has always been an example to me of how radio play was once its own art form, not something that strives for completion on stage.

Nobody longed for a big Covid game. Still, it’s a sign of the wonder that Happy Days is and the aura of Lisa Dwan that, without distorting Samuel Beckett’s lyrics, Trevor Nunn’s production highlights the experience of the past year and a half. Radiant: Lisa Dwan in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. Radiant: Lisa Dwan in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. Photo: Helen Maybanks

Everyone – except perhaps Stanley Johnson, who roams his far-flung properties – is likely to react to this extreme version of lockdown: to the image of Winnie, buried first up to her waist, later to her neck, in a mound of earth, completely stuck in an apparently inert landscape. Also the desperate search for compensation: the blazing attention to small details, making a territory of grass pollen and the contents of a bag (but why is this gray when described as black?). Dwan examines the movements of an ant through her magnifying glass with the excitement of an anthropologist who has discovered the unsuspected survivor of an extinct tribe. Simon Wolfe offers good sniffing and sneezing support like Willie.

I’ve never felt so clearly how time and day-to-day events battle it out for supremacy. Never so keenly noticed Beckett’s challenge to onlookers asking what it means. Never felt the horror of sudden change so acutely. The first and second half are beautifully made different – by Dwan and by Tim Mitchell’s spectacular lighting, which goes from gold to ashen. Dwan – expansive Irish – is at first hurdy-gurdy, her black bra, tweaking her up but tumbled, arms outstretched to inspect her hands as if they were planets orbiting a sun. In the second act she is bleached and static, like a monumental figure on a tombstone. This and Krapp’s Last Tape are both much richer in my opinion than Waiting for Godot: Beckett’s His and Hers.

Star ratings (out of five): J’Ouvert Under Milk Wood ★★★ Happy Days ★★★★

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