Under Milk Wood


Reviewed by: Jane Fae

Under Milk Wood
"Kevin Allen succeeds, brilliantly, in creating something new, fresh and thoroughly engaging."

I am not a fan of the remake: the reimagined, reframed; the second guess. Which is not to say that a remake of an original with strong direction and clear vision can’t work: it is just that all too often, the new is overwhelmed by comparison with the old and unlike wine-tasting – where a swig of water and a spit clears the palette – it is hard to clear the brain of old film.

Especially when the film – or the play on which it has based – has become so much part of our cultural DNA.

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This is what makes so brave Kevin Allen’s decision to venture once more Under Milk Wood, some 60 years after Richard Burton delivered what is widely regarded as the “definitive” performance of this play, poem, comedy, tragedy on the radio: 40 years after Richard Burton, again, and Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O’Toole elevated it to slightly lesser critical acclaim on the big screen.

OK. It has Welsh voices aplenty - which would have pleased author Dylan Thomas - but can we really compare Rhys Ifans turning in a fine performance as Milk Wood’s pivotal character and narrator, lovelorn Captain Cat, and Charlotte Church, turning everyone else’s eyes as the loved-too-much Polly Garter, to such giant predecessors?

The good news. We do not need to. Kevin Allen succeeds, brilliantly, in creating something new, fresh and thoroughly engaging.

This he does by paying utmost respect to the fundamentals, while at the same time wholly jettisoning Thomas’ insistence that Under Milk Wood is a “play for voices” and bringing to it fresh vision and a colour-saturated imagination.

Down the years, critics have argued as to what exactly the play is about. Is it, as Burton famously declared “about religion, the idea of death and sex”? Or is it about nothing much at all? About the daily comings and goings in Llareggub, which is both tiny Welsh village where the action takes place and (read it backwards!) allegedly Thomas’ last little joke at the expense of the BBC censors.

Allen has made it all of these. From the very first “Listen!” to the last gentle benediction, he is faithful to the spirit of Thomas’s endeavour, bringing out the gentle humour of everyday existence through an intensely lyric language.

This is an affectionate, earthy view of ordinary people acknowledging a universal truth: that human beings are by turns funny, sad, laughing, vicious, tragic; and that we should love and celebrate them in all their flawed imperfection.

There is rather more explicit sexuality than when I first took part in a performance of this work (at school, more than 40 years ago!): sideways reference to PC Attila Rees dragging out his helmet in the middle of the night, becomes rather more blatantly masturbatory; Dai Bread, the baker, bakes phallic loaves. Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard, who takes intense pleasure from dreams of nagging her deceased husbands, turns up here as leather-clad dominatrix with an alabaster dildo on her shelves alongside the fine bone china.

Where Allen departs from the original, apart from some minor pruning of the original script – what gives this version of Under Milk Wood fresh vigour, and sets it aside from its predecessors – is in his decision to make it unashamedly filmic: to depart from Thomas’ demand that the audience “Listen!”.

From the very first, as we are drawn in by his intelligent combination of music, water, cloud and colour, it is clear that we are intended as much to “Watch!”, as well as tap along to an innovative and varied score that adds depth and interest to each character.

Purists and those with a firm belief that “there can only be one” may object that this is not necessarily the way Dylan Thomas imagined it. Who knows: perhaps they would be right. But that should not be excuse for missing this glorious re-creation of a classic work. It’s not what it was: and for that it should be celebrated.

Reviewed on: 25 Oct 2015
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Dylan Thomas' tale of a Welsh seaside town.
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Director: Kevin Allen

Writer: Kevin Allen, Michael Breen, Michael Breen, Dylan Thomas, Murray Lachlan Young, Murray Lachlan Young

Starring: Rhys Ifans, Julian Lewis Jones, Charlotte Church, Di Botcher, Steffan Rhodri, Ruth Lloyd, Llyr Ifans, Sara Sugarman, Rhodri Meilir, Bradley Freegard, Lisa Palfrey, Helen Griffin, Aneirin Hughes, Nicholas McGaughey, Habib Nasib Nader

Year: 2015

Runtime: 87 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


EIFF 2015

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