Kevin Allen’s adaptation of the legendary Welsh poet and author Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood, first written as a radio play for the BBC and broadcast in 1954 following his death, is a bit of rip-roaring fun packed with theatrical performances to match. Like an ale-induced hallucination, the dreams and realities of the residents of this humble town in South Wales in ‘one single day’ ghost each other in fearless dramatisations of Thomas’s beloved words to create a rich world teeming with vibrancy. But through the hyper-coloured, hyper-real kineticism, Allen’s cinematic version stays true to the Welsh warmth and humanism that undercoats this and everything Thomas ever wrote.
Just as Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton are inextricable from the first UNDER MILKWOOD film of 1971, the part of Captain Cat could only have been given to Rhys Ifans, and indeed he plays it like it’s his birthright. For anyone familiar with the themes of Thomas’s writing, it’s easy to read into the fluid expressiveness of Ifans’ fisherman’s face a sort of paternal sorrowfulness, epitomising that bittersweet mediation of life and death that preoccupies much of Thomas’s writing (and much of Milkwood). The tears that trickle down his face from his blind eyes at one point suggest all the loneliness of the sea that laps the fictional village of Llareggub, puncturing the colourful action like a fisherman’s spear. It is near the only moment of overt sadness in an otherwise rough-and-ready barn dance of seaside village life.
Such strong, larger-than-life characters are there in Thomas’s original ‘play for voices’ – Organ Morgan, Polly Garter, Dai Bread, Willy Nilly and the lovely Rosie Probert, here played by a preening, curvaceous Charlotte Church with dwindling authenticity it must be said – that much of the drama revolves around the physical fact of their comic beings in their natural habitats, first in the sleeping town’s dream sequences and then in busy daytime life. The music by Paul Golding and Chris Gutch moves through each cottage we visit in keeping with the hands of a clock, scat-jazzing its way through an entire village’s inhabitants with all the diversity the journey warrants. The surreal point of view camera darts like a mouse from cubby hole to cubby hole, and we see at times the imagined rodent on who’s back we ride dart up the arm of a sleeping resident here, along a wall there…
Under Milkwood is a play infected with so much life, seamlessly moving through one day and illuminating at every moment the multilayered feelings, fears, desires and dispositions of the people in a small fishing village in South Wales. With assurity, Allen captures this luminosity with all the visual possibilities his medium affords. It is a bright, bawdy bit of fun.