RHYS Ifans and director Kevin Allen tell Alistair Harkness the time is right for another film version of the Dylan Thomas classic Under Milk Wood
It’s a misconception that all Welsh people are born with an innate love of Dylan Thomas. Take Rhys Ifans. He only got into him because he hates tap dancing. “I remember at drama school we were supposed to do tap dancing lessons and I just don’t do that,” laughs the actor. “I asked whether I could go to the library instead and every tap dance lesson I’d listen to LPs of Dylan Thomas. That’s where I discovered him.”
Kevin Allen, on the other hand, didn’t get into him until very recently. The writer/director, who helped kick-start Ifans’s film career with his own debut feature, 1997’s Twin Town, wasn’t remotely interested in Thomas’s poetry as a kid and wasn’t much impressed with it as an adult either, associating it with funerals. “It gave me the s***s to be honest.”
That both are avowed fans now is evident from their new film version of Thomas’s most famous work, Under Milk Wood, but as quickly becomes apparent when we meet in Edinburgh ahead of the film’s world premiere, neither has much time for the mythos that has continued to swirl around the poet since his death 62 years ago.
“We really just wanted to do something together, didn’t we?” says Ifans of the starting point for the film, their first collaboration since Twin Town.
“Things are happening in Wales, media-wise, and we wanted to do something iconically Welsh,” says Allen. “Under Milk Wood just felt obvious with the centenary coming up.”
With those centenary celebrations about to draw to a close, it certainly makes sense to round them off with a new film version of the last thing Thomas wrote before drinking himself to death. So much of the recent cinematic interest in the poet – Edge of Love, Set Fire to the Stars – has, after all, focused on the man not the work, making it all too easy to overlook the woozy appeal of the words themselves. “It’s like, ‘Who cares?’ He liked to drink, he died early,” sighs Allen. “This was a chance to just get stuck into a great piece of literature.”
Conceived as a radio play and first broadcast posthumously in 1954 with Richard Burton leading the cast, the play hasn’t actually been interpreted much for the screen, the reverence for the subsequent 1973 film version – also starring Burton – perhaps putting people off. As Allen points out, though, there have been some great theatre versions. “Rhys did one,” he says.
“I did it with Roger Michell at The National,” elaborates Ifans.
He’s referring to Michell’s 1995 staging – the first time a Welsh play had ever been performed at the National Theatre in London. I ask Ifans how doing it as a movie compared with doing it on stage 20 years ago.
“What struck me about the theatre production – and it was fantastic – but what I felt increasingly at the time was there was a kind of division among the cast anytime anything bawdy or sexual or naughty came on. There would always be a huge discussion like, ‘Oh no, no, no, we can’t do that…’”
“It’s sacrilege,” mocks Allen.
“It was a Welsh cast and you had a younger group of actors going, ‘Let’s push this further, it’s there on the page, let’s address it,’” continues Ifans, “and then you had an older generation of actors going, ‘No, no, you can’t do that to Dylan Thomas.’ So the film was an opportunity to do what Dylan f***ing wrote, essentially. Which is a really beautiful, sensual, funny, challenging piece of writing.”
Set in the fictional village of Llareggub – read the name backwards – the play, which is essentially a series of vignettes full of rich characters, lusty language and outré imagery, was intended as both a celebration and playful send-up of Welsh culture. Not that it was necessarily received that way. “It is very affectionate to his culture, but he was lambasted by a generation for it,” says Allen of the play’s initial reception. “Dirty washing and shagging! It was like, ‘What is he portraying us as?’”
“And consequently it suffered,” says Ifans. “Strangely, in response to people recoiling from it in the first place, it suffered as a piece of theatre for many years by being held with such reverence. It crippled it as a piece of literature.”
For Allen, the fact that Thomas died before he had a chance to revise or perfect it liberated him from having to wrestle it into the traditional shape of a movie. “Narratively it’s all over the place, which was a joy for me,” he says. “It invited me to attack it intuitively, subconsciously. At the end of the day we’ve got these fantastic words, so you just trust them.”
That’s what Ifans did as well: trust the words – something that also made it easier for him to move past Burton’s iconic performances. “The star of the show is Dylan Thomas,” says Ifans. “That’s all you need to know. Richard Burton sounded good because Dylan Thomas is a great writer. And I’ve listened to [Burton’s version] myself many times; it’s beautiful. But in this context, in this century, it’s old-fashioned.
What’s perhaps most striking about Allen’s film is the way it uses the medium to visualise Thomas’s words. “He was a very visual poet,” says Ifans. “He explored intellectual ideas via imagery so it’s a natural evolution for Dylan to be [on screen].” This also made it a particularly surreal experience for the actor, who arrived on set having just played Dylan Thomas in another film, the forthcoming Dominion. “We shot that film in black and white and in many scenes I’d be falling asleep in the throes of agony and death in a bar in New York. And weirdly, what I was seeing in my head – even though we hadn’t shot it yet – was this multi-coloured halcyon vision of Wales. So, strangely enough, I got off the plane and went and shot a film about what Dylan was dreaming about in the film I’d just done.”
Time’s almost up, but as we’re in Edinburgh and discussing sacred cows so much, I ask if it was a frustrating to have Twin Town marketed as “the Welsh Trainspotting” just because Danny Boyle and Andrew Macdonald executive produced it.
“It was insulting, to be really frank,” says Allen. “It was nothing to do with us. And it was a double-edged sword. Polygram made it, Andrew and Danny exec-edited it – they were off making another film, but they got us the money – and because of the success of Trainspotting, Polygram was insistent on labelling it as such. I was appalled.”
“It was corporate greed,” sighs Ifans.
“I thought it killed the film’s potential at the time,” says Allen. “It didn’t stop its cult mileage.”
Ifans offers a bolder assessment of the latter. “You can correct me if I’m wrong, but I would go as far as to say I think the footprint that Twin Town has left in Wales is bigger than the footprint that Trainspotting has left in Scotland.”
Allen isn’t so sure, but agrees that it was a phenomenon in their home country. “They all know every word. That means we must have done something right.”
• Under Milk Wood is on selected release from 30 October