Foreign-Language Spotlight: Kevin Allen on Sexing Up Welsh Classic 'Under Milk Wood' (Q&A)

S4C
'Under Milk Wood'

The director of the U.K.'s foreign Oscar contender on battling the purists to put the "shagging" back in Dylan Thomas' much-loved play.

The last time Dylan Thomas’ famed “play for voices” Under Milk Wood made it to the silver screen, it had Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O’Toole in the cast. More than 40 years on, a new version, starring Rhys Ifans and singing star Charlotte Church, and all in Welsh, is the U.K.’s nomination for the foreign-language Oscar.

Director Kevin Allen told The Hollywood Reporter how he took on Thomas purists to introduce the poet's language to a new generation. (Hint: by putting the sex back in!) 

What made you want to revisit Dylan Thomas’ acclaimed work?

Well, it was the centenary (of Thomas' death). But it’s only been done once before as a film and a long time ago. There’s an audience out there who don’t know who he is, let alone what Under Milk Wood is. I’ve spent a little of time battling the purists, but there’s a whole audience we just played the movie to who honestly don’t know his work. They’re like, "Who is this Welsh dwarf?" And then they hear the words ... It’s a way of accessing an audience to poetry. And he’s a great poet—the most translated in the English language.

What’s the argument of the purists?

Only that is should only be a radio play. But Thomas only sold it as a radio play because he was skint (broke). He sent it into the BBC and, in his own words, said “something for voice, perhaps.” They called it a “play for voices.” These myths just gather.

It’s been done in many different formats before?

It’s been an opera and there have been many, many theater productions. But they’re all fairly puerile. They’ve never alluded to the erotica, ever. It’s always under the carpet. I don’t know how you can do a piece (like this) without alluding to the shagging?!

Your version is a world away from the only other film adaptation, which had Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O’Toole.

(The previous film) was of a time and a generation. Because I shot this back-to-back and did a Welsh version as well, I, thank God, wasn’t shackled by casting. It could have gone down a two-year line of trying to get Keira Knightley. I didn’t have any of that. Because Rhys (Ifans) was on board (and) I had to have a first-language Welsh cast, all that was just done away with. I could just get on with it.

What was the reason behind doing it back-to-back in English and Welsh?

Money. I couldn’t have made it without [Welsh language broadcaster] S4C’s money. For half the budget they get their Welsh version. It was very brave of them to green light and invest that kind of money into a project written by a non-first language Welshman and directed by someone for whom Welsh wasn’t his first language.

Are the two films two different beasts?

The Welsh one is slightly longer. There was a tiny bit of editing, but nothing major. It’s the same movie really.  Bar the scene with the kid smoking. They took that out for TV.

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