Last Updated on 25th April 2022
Paul T Davies reviews The Corn Is Green a semi-autobiographical play by Emlyn Williams now on stage at the National Theatre, London.
The Corn is Green.
National Theatre, London
22 April 2022
We all have, or should have, an inspirational teacher who believed in us and altered the course of our lives, I know I did. The central premise of Emlyn William’s 1938 semi-autobiographical play is that influence, when English teacher Miss Moffat cycles into a Welsh mining village, sets up a school and begins the educate the workers. One, in particular, shines through, Morgan Evans, who she coaches up to an entrance exam for Oxford. Director Dominic Cooke’s concept has Emlyn Williams as a character, struggling with his cultured life of fame as an actor in London, and writing the play in his head. What begins as an innovative way to frame the play, with “Emlyn Williams” reading the stage directions, thoughts and looks as the actors move around a bare stage, quickly becomes the concept for the whole play. For me, this shifts focus away from the play itself, making Williams the central character, not Miss Moffat, and, especially in the second half when he interrupts the action to redraft a scene, underlines that the actors are merely ciphers for the playwright’s words and inhibits characterisation. The play, which is problematic to a modern audience anyway, isn’t allowed to stand or fall on its own merits.
We get a male voice choir, by far the best things about the production, who fill the Lyttleton theatre with gorgeous melodies, acting partly as a Greek chorus, but also as a jury as they watch the events unfold. They also underline the deep romanticism at the heart of the play, I’m pretty sure my father and his co-workers didn’t sing rousing hymns for the two-mile walk home they did after every twelve-hour shift. As Miss Moffat, Nicola Walker brings great energy to the role, and her beliefs highlight her complexity- her sexism and snobbery is as deep as those of the Squire, (a lively performance by Rufus Wright). Iwan Davies, as Morgan Evans, does well to bring some light to the role, but it’s difficult to work out how old these pupils are supposed to be, this lot looks as if they could scrum down for Wales with ease. However, there are some nuggets in the seam, especially Alice Orr- Ewing’s gawky, terribly posh Miss Ronberry, and Jo McInnes steals the show as sardonic housekeeper Mrs. Watty the humour works very well.
As the second half begins, the miners sing to “Emlyn Williams” that he has “forgotten to remember”, and the curtain is raised to reveal a full set, fully dressed, for the day of Morgan’s entrance exam. It feels as if the production has now lost the courage of its convictions, although the intention is to show that William’s vision is now firmer. When the play speaks, it is problematic, not least the love of a much older man, (John Gorony Jones), for the young school girl Bessie Watty, and the fact that her pregnancy by Morgan Evans is resolved in the clunkiest and most unconvincing way. It’s so frustrating because when the play is allowed to land, there is so much potential.
How you respond to the play will depend on how you respond to the concept. However, following on from last year’s Under Milk Wood, it is wonderful to hear Welsh voices and the Welsh language on the National’s stages. Perhaps next time we could have a contemporary playwright, one that punctures the mythology a bit, and tells a more realistic tale of the nation.