Mister Ansell was one of my teachers back when I was at boarding school. His son Tim used to be present as well with his long hair and beard and his alsatian dog. I used to run into Tim and go for walks in the grounds of what was a normal school to my mind back then and an incredible luxury of a school to the same mind now.
His dad used to recommend me books. He never actually taught me English, but he was an English teacher and he found me standing in his classroom reading “Under Milk Wood” out loud one afternoon. I didn’t even know what a Welsh accent sounded like then – I was eleven. I had pulled the book from off the shelf and I was immediately sucked in by the muscularity of it all. I wanted to munch those words. This is a time when I kept being told not to whisper as I was “silently” reading in class. I always wanted to speak the words. Books were scripts – and Under Milk Wood? It’s still like a weird script. I understood very little of it but that’s never stopped a lot of the actors I’ve worked with on Shakespeare over the years. I liked Under Milk Wood.
“What’s it about?”, Mr Ansell asked me, perhaps wanting some sort of summary. “Organ Morgan. Captain Cat…” I didn’t have a clue what it was about. I just wanted to read it for the words of it. For the script of it. For the feel of it. For the meat.
Lyndsey Turner and whoever makes the decisions at The National Theatre – they decided that the show to reopen official UK theatre with – that show would be Under Milk Wood. But how to do it?
It’s framed in a nursing home. It’s about memory. It’s about selfishness. It’s about family. It’s smart. They’ve wheeled in Michael Sheen, who I haven’t seen since we were Bright Young Things, and they’ve found a way for it not to be just the clever Welshman doing what I did in Mr Ansell’s classroom and expounding muscular poetry. They’ve made it human.
I was emotional anyway. Theatre with lights in a building. What a treat. The Olivier, huge but with that incredible pin-drop acoustic. We were sitting in the round, spaced out. A logistical nightmare even getting to the seat, but once we were there we could all stretch our legs. No interval – the whole day in one. The village. The people. The stories.
Sian Phillips was in it. 88 years old. One of the things she had to do was sing a song. Polly’s song about Willy Wee – the dead lover who she still misses. I have no idea what she filled it with. It doesn’t matter what she filled it with. The fact is – she filled it. And that is the memory I’m going to carry from this first bit of theatre back after Covid. All of us audience together in a room, in a matinee, in that moment simply listening to Sian singing a simple song but with such truth and connection that many of us wept unknowing – we knew we were listening to the truth. The truth can hurt.
It’s costly, that kind of vulnerability. God love Sian Philips. She’s 88 and she’s still giving completely. I think we’d be best friends.