Nicola Walker and director Dominic Cooke refresh dated play
The Corn Is Green is a production that is worthy to stand alongside the best of the National Theatre. It almost seems a bonus that it features a star performance from Nicola Walker.
It’s a hundred years ago and an Englishwoman Miss Moffatt, played by Nicola Walker, arrives in a Welsh mining village. It’s her mission to educate the children. One of them, Morgan Evans, played with feeling and humour by Iwan Davies, is exceptionally clever and becomes her protégé. Much of the play hinges around the question, will he or won’t he go to Oxford University?
Apart from Morgan, the other characters are one-dimensional so anyone playing Miss Moffatt is required to carry the show. In the past, the part has attracted some big guns: Sybil Thorndyke, Ethel Barrymore, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Deborah Kerr. Hard acts to follow, and it seems for the first half that this is going to be a one note performance from Nicola Walker. I mean a beautiful pure note, but essentially she is determined and haughty toward everyone she meets and in everything she does. Then as she becomes more emotionally involved with making Morgan a success, a throatiness and slight hesitation pervades the previous stridency. It’s a subtle, powerful performance.
This semi-autobiographical play is dated in some respects and could have failed as a production but for some brilliant ideas by, I assume, director Dominic Cooke. First he introduces the author onto the stage, giving the stage directions and in that sense showing he is both is telling a story and that the story is very much about him.
Morgan talks about the conflict he feels about leaving his community but this is not dwelt on in the play. Again Dominic Cooke’s production comes to the rescue. The use of a miners’ chorus throughout is a reminder of the draw of the community.
The production opens with a 1930s ball shown in silhouette behind a curtain. A man steps out from it to the front of the stage. We soon realise this is Emlyn Williams. He begins to type his semi autobiographical play and creates the characters and story before our eyes. We’re back in a Welsh mining village in the early twenties. A group of miners sing in Welsh. The great Bill Deamer choreographs the moments of dance.
We meet some of the characters: the village children, who only speak Welsh, and the English who stand above and apart from them, showing contempt for people they regard as savages. Themain characters are amusing but fairly one dimensional: Richard Lynch is the saved Christian Mr Jones, with red-faced passion bubbling under his proper exterior; the dim, nervous Miss Ronberry played by Alice Orr-Ewing and the even dimmer landowner that she loves, simply known as The Squire, played by Rufus Wright. Then Miss Moffat appears.
Educating the children means teaching them arithmetic and to read and write, English, that is. The playwright appears to support this and treats the many racist attitudes towards the Welsh as a bit of a joke.
Morgan is the a cocky and clever leader of the boys (all of whom are played by adults). He becomes Miss Moffatt’s star student and she is tyrannical in her determination to pursue her ambitions for him, without care of any enemies she might make.
At first the actors mime on a set, designed by ULTZ, that is a blank and black with minimal props, perhaps indicating the emptiness of the prospects of these people who start down the mines at age ten. I don’t want to spoil the surprise but ULTZ’s set design is gradually populated with more detail and, when you come back after the interval, the curtain goes up on a transformed stage, like an Aladdin’s cave after the austerity of the first act. Just as Miss Moffat has become emotionally engaged and the educated Morgan has become committed to leaving for a wider world, the set becomes a naturalistic with colourful wallpaper and detailed furnishings.
Sure, The Corn Is Green is sentimental, patronising, and not overly challenging but, in the hands of Nicola Walker and Dominic Cooke, it is also heartwarming, and a hymn to the power of education.
The Corn Is Green can be seen at the Lyttelton Theatre within the National Theatre until 11 June 2022.
Paul received a complimentary review ticket from the producers.