Mostly Under Milk Wood

Kevin Allen’s new film of Dylan Thomas’s beloved radio play is in cinemas this week. Your reviewer is theTramp.


To begin at the beginning: It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea.

When I think of Under Milk Wood I think of Richard Burton’s authoritative rolling vowels describing the inhabitants of Llareggub (pronounced la-reg-gib) as they sleep and go about their day. It’s as much to do with my education — I was introduced to it at school — as it is with the seemingly perfect marriage of actor and play. A play in rhyme, a poem that looks at the inhabitants of this small, fictional Welsh town, and invites the audience to better understand their everyday lives by first experiencing their dreams.

Until now it never occurred to me that there were other versions, or indeed so many. I didn’t know Burton reprised his role as first narrator in a film, for instance, or that Anthony Hopkins and George Martin were involved in another version with Elton John. Nor did I know there was an Under Milk Wood ballet. Evidently Dylan Thomas’s BBC-commissioned radio play of 1952 has many fans, inspired by the use of language, the characters and the richness of its imagery. One of those fans is Rhys Ifans, famous for being tall, straggly of hair, Welsh and able to straddle roles in big productions like Harry Potter, smaller more art house fare like Enduring Love, and television shows like Elementary. In the latest cinematic outing of Under Milk Wood, Ifans is first narrator and he plays Captain Cat; he also co-produced the film.

There is a sense of turning the village and its inhabitants into a Welsh version of a Greek drama in this version, with dream sequences and sea faring motifs, with sex and monsters and goddesses, all dosed with a particular sort of Britishness (I know I should call it Welshness but to me it is all very British). If you can imagine a musical version of The Darling Buds of May made after everyone involved had taken a lot of acid, by a director heavily influenced, I suspect, by a goodly dose of Tony Harrison, then you’re very close to Kevin Allen’s vision. Well, that’s how I saw it.

As a curiosity this has a great deal going for it, but I suspect that bugger all (Llareggub backwards) audiences will bother with it and I can’t say there is any great compulsion, now that I have seen it, for me to recommend otherwise. I would, however, expect English teachers to soon be adding it to their canon of ‘film versions that help students connect with great literature’. The “oo-er missus” blend of seedy sweaty sex that oozes from every pore of this adaptation strikes me as particularly teen friendly.

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