That distant first night is still burned on my memory, but the new cast make the piece entirely their own. Two best friends on the East side of Cardiff after the last war, their respective mothers, and four chairs are the components. The characters are sculpted in an abstract landscape which designer Anthony Ward floods with red, a colour (like most colours) banished in the old Royal Court post-Brechtian era of austerity.
For all its simplicity, the play remains satisfyingly dense. The dialogue switches around in time, and the two boys, Gerard (Matt Ryan) and Vincent (Luke Evans), are seen at either end of their relationship, Vincent having “betrayed” a period of innocent ecstasy by joining the Navy, reading J B Priestley as well as the Wizard, getting married and then finding it difficult to form a relationship with a woman.
Gerard, on the other hand, has remained land-locked in his childhood, infused still with the beauty of the night sky over Cardiff docks, marked by his Catholicism – “I’m on the altar tonight,” he screams at his mother, like a little girl at dance school, demanding a clean white cotta – adamant about not going out for a drink to try and rescue the past between them.
Gerard’s mother Mrs Harte (Sue Johnston) and Vincent’s mother Mrs Driscoll (Lindsey Coulson) share domestic disappointments and, we gradually realise, a tragic suicide when the pressure builds up. But the mainspring of the evening is the tension between sons and mothers in a painfully real working-class setting of selfish husbands, little money, and the limited pleasures of a nostalgic dance to an old remembered tune.
Not for nothing had Gill made his name directing the D H Lawrence trilogy at the Court a few years earlier. Like Lawrence, he believes in the essential nobility of the working class and avoids all the traps of cliché and sentimentality in the bold poetry and allusive elasticity of his writing. In the famous musical crescendo, the two women are thrown to the floor with the scattered chairs: a moment of defiance and declaration.
Hugh Vanstone’s lighting makes the Donmar’s brick wall a perfect backdrop, picking out a beer bottle, a tea-pot, a pile of books, on the stage-wide shelf that supports these objects like emblems in a heightened fable. Gill’s little masterpiece is another Under Milk Wood, without the jokes or the ribaldry, but pregnant with a similar dark Welsh intensity.
- Michael Coveney