To begin at the beginning…


My lovely wife and I took the opportunity for a rare date night last week, and went to the cinema. We chose Under Milkwood, the famed Dylan Thomas ‘play for voices’ (I’ll come back to that) that is well-known worldwide, and has been recreated in many forms. The newest form is the 2015 interpretation of Director Kevin Allen.

Kevin is a Welsh actor, writer, producer and director, and also the sibling of Keith Allen (off of Vindaloo – the 90’s football fans will get that reference); Kevin was also the Director of Twin Town – the infamous film set in the “lovely ugly town” of Swansea, or as it was called in Twin Town: “the pretty shitty city”.

The cinema that we chose was fantastic- a pop up cinema called Cinema & Co in Swansea, Dylan’s birthplace (the city, not the cinema). The two guys that run Cinema & Co have taken an otherwise empty space and turned it into something special; think Edison light bulbs, bare walls, a small bar serving craft beers, smiling staff, and futon-style two seaters made from pallets (complete with big cushions and blankets). It made for a very intimate and relaxed setting.

The peaceful room, accompanied by laid back chatter from the laid back audience, was juxtaposed with the chaos of Wind Street just a few yards away. We were undisturbed other than the odd flash of blue lights speeding past, which temporarily lit the foyer.

“We are not wholly bad or good, who live our lives under Milk Wood.” – Under Milkwood

The film is a colourful representation of what has become Dylan Thomas’ most famous work. Set in the fictional town of Llareggub, Under Milkwood has had many incarnations, on the stage and maybe most famously being voiced by one of Wales’ other famous exports – Richard Burton.

I have listened to a few audio versions of Under Milkwood, including the famous Burton piece, and have read the original work as well. Yes, this is all in an attempt to appear cultured and knowledgeable, though my consumption would often be accompanied by consumption of another kind (namely, eating Pringles – other healthy snacks are available – which does seem to compromise the cultural experience slightly).

I have previously found Under Milkwood a pretty challenging read, with the need to check back a few pages on occasions to try and work out what is happening. The Director recognised this aspect during the Q&A that followed the screening, he talked about embracing this madness and dream-like prose within this film, which led to him producing something quite different and well worth watching (my words, not his).

“The land of my fathers? My fathers can keep it” – Dylan Thomas 

The usual suspects are in the film when it comes to Welsh actors, with Rhys Ifans and Charlotte Church (who is the exception to my sweeping statement about usual suspects) topping the bill. There are many cameos from people otherwise seen in films such as Twin Town, and television such as Gavin & Stacey. Wales is a small nation, and as a Welsh man I can say that it is a little predictable when many actors pop up in many productions, but I guess it is because they are good at what they do.

Under Milkwood
Charlotte Church leading the way as Polly Garter

Llareggub (reverse it) is a small Welsh town, with some great Welsh characters including Organ Morgan, Polly Garter, Willy Nilly, Evans the Death and Dai Bread. It may sound a little pantomime but it works. There are many Welsh-isms that I recognise from growing up in a small Welsh town, and quotes that I can imagine my grandmother saying (one of my favourites being “using language”, a great way to describe swearing). There are also some quite bizarre moments; the most bizarre maybe involving faggots and peas and a couple, ahem, showing their affections (with the faggots and peas at one point).

The play quickly flicks between characters in an often surreal way, with some of the characters alive and some dead. This leads to different interpretations and it is interesting (and a little disturbing) at times to see how Allen has interpreted the characters within the play. The bossy Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard is shown as a dominatrix character, complete with leather and whips, who takes pleasure in torturing her ex-husbands (who are both dead) in a house which has large sex toys on display next to fine china.

The film is a concoction of bright technicolour, camera filters (very basic but very effective) and sexuality. I was surprised at how sexual the film was in parts, but I can understand where the interpretation has come from after re-reading these sections in the original work.

Rhys Ifans plays the blind Captain Cat brilliantly, and all other actors played their individual parts well. I had my moments of being a little confused (friends will tell you that this isn’t a one-off), but this was usually just a temporary blip (short attention span).

“Dust the china, feed the canary, sweep the drawing-room floor; and before you let the sun in, mind he wipes his shoes.” – Under Milkwood

The Director spoke after the film about his frustrations at Under Milkwood often being referred to as the ‘play for voices’ – seen by many critics as exclusively a radio play. His interpretation was that this isn’t the case, and that this originated as an almost throwaway comment by Thomas who wanted to publicise the work, and saw radio as an opportunity for it to be published. I think that Allen did a great job of pulling the prose and poetry together to tell a story and develop the characters, in what is a complicated piece of work.

I’m no film critic (by now I expect that you have come to this conclusion yourself), but I must say that watching it in an independent cinema with the Director certainly added a special something. We enjoyed the film and I would recommend it for any fans of Dylan Thomas, or anyone keen to see what all the fuss is about. If you are able to support a local independent cinema at the same time, then all the better.

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