Theatre: Llareggub, a piece for radio

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Under Milk Wood

National Theatre, Olivier, London

The original title of Dylan Thomas's was Llareggub, a Piece for Radio Perhaps. By a piquant irony, the National Theatre is now using all the technical wizardry and awesome resources of its Olivier stage to prove with some conclusiveness that there's no "perhaps" about it. Thomas's lyrical, affectionate, montage-caricature of this fictional Welsh seaside village appeals - by definition at some points - to the auditory imagination. The more strenuous the spectacle-equivalent, the less likely you are to lose sight of that fact. Indeed, the friend I took to Roger Michell's visually hectic production said that he began to enjoy the experience about halfway through, when he decided to close his eyes.

This version begins with a joky nod towards the medium on which the piece found fame. A huge old-fashioned Bakelite wireless is stationed centre- stage where it forms a sort of lectern-podium for Nicholas McGaughey's dark, powerfully charismatic First Voice. Radio is invoked again later on in the section where blind Captain Cat (movingly played by Anthony O'Donnell) tries to identify the scene around him from the noises he hears. To him, life is radio, a fact that the medium of radio can bring out with intimacy and force by inspiring fellow feeling in the listener. The production tries to get round the problem of staging this by bringing on an antique microphone and having the cast act it out as though it were a wireless play, creating the sound effects by the old studio methods. But when you listen to , you don't imagine actors in a studio, no more than a blind man does when imagining the world in his mind's eye. So instead of scoring the two hits achieved by radio in the sequence, this version registers two misses.

Elsewhere, the production, which is designed by William Dudley, plies you with visual distraction. In so doing, it makes use of every level of this epic theatre. When we eavesdrop with the narrators on the dreams of the sleeping inhabitants, wire-supported beds, actors, and symbolic objects are lowered from an enormous height to create a rather beautiful aerial ballet. As Captain Cat recalls his dead seamates, they emerge from trapdoors and are hoisted up through the drift of his consciousness. The rising revolve of the Olivier stage puts in excessive overtime to produce different perspectives on Thomas's libido-driven arcadia.

What quickly starts to pall, though, is the dogged literalism with which the images in the overripe language are presented. When, for example, Mr and Mrs Floyd are described as sleeping "like two old kippers in a box", a hand plunges up through a trapdoor brandishing two old kippers in a box, a touch for which any non-English speaking tourists in the audience will be more grateful than the rest of us. It's true that, as the day in the life of this community moves into sunset and darkness, shades of mortality pass with a certain poignancy over the proceedings here. In general, though, you may feel that the play should have been subtitled (with apologies to James Bond) For Your Ears Only.

n In rep at the National, London SE1. Booking: 0171-928 2252