The National Theater has taken up the curious habit of reviving plays that are artistic fish out of water: social realist dramas with a strong sense of time and place, but which have now been overtaken by the onward march of the aesthetic taste and societal values.
First there was Rodney Ackland’s Absolute hell in 2018then that of Githa Sowerby Rutherford and Sons in 2019, the first recounts fear and hatred in post-World War II London, the second explores the erosion of social classes in the shadow of industrial progress at the turn of the 20th century. And now Emlyn Williams’ corn is greena semi-autobiographical play about a Welsh miner turned Oxford scholar and the teacher who pushed him to reach his potential.
Director Dominic Cooke gave the play a postmodern tinge in the form of a tuxedoed Williams on stage acting as a meta-narrator sculpting his story like a sculptor from his own imagination and real-time memory. What begins as an indistinct block of marble, with the whole thing completely stripped of pageantry or props, is delicately chiseled by Williams into a living, breathing complex world of rural Wales.
At the end, there’s a lavishly detailed set, filling in the gaps that the audience’s imagination once left open. Williams, played by Gareth David-Lloyd, stands side by side with his own literary creations, coyly nurturing his character lines and scenic directions. This production resolutely emphasizes the dialogue between the writer, memory and the nature of the autobiography. But this contemporary gloss is not enough to breathe new life into an old piece.
The story is plagued with caricatures and divisive plot points. Rufus Wright’s squire, a hapless Wodehouse-esque PG who is tricked into sponsoring young Morgan Evans, Williams’ alter ego, is played for laughs because there isn’t much else his character can do. Some narrative twists are contrived and only feel included to flesh out the story; take the tangential unplanned pregnancy subplot, plus Hollyoaks than serious social commentary, which only serves to distract from the main theme of the class.
The understated ferocity of Nicola Walker as Miss Moffat is the epicenter of the play. She is the erudite and unassuming teacher whose belief and dedication to Morgan’s education galvanizes him to get out of the coal mines and up the social ladder. His faithful performance is dignified, tender and joyful to watch, especially alongside Morgan Evans, played by a young Iwan Davies. She even navigates extensively in Williams’ clumsy poetic polemics about social mobility and the benefits of assimilation into English culture.
Like with Rutherford and Sons and absolute hell, corn is green had been on a long hiatus from London theaters before this National Theater revival. It’s easy to see why: without the theatrical gimmicks and artifice, the production would be stale. But then, if that directorial talent is needed, why revive it in the first place? corn is green isn’t the searing commentary on education or class that it might have been when it premiered in the 1930s. It’s well directed and masterfully acted, but it can’t possibly be as good as the screenplay.
Corn is Green is at The National Theater until June 12
Photograph by Johan Persson