Can it really be four years since I sat in one of the auditoria of the National Theatre? Well, what with one thing and another (mostly one thing), it would appear that is the case. In the intervening time I’ve seen dozens of their productions online, indeed where would I have been without National Theatre At Home? In that sense I spent more time at the venue than anywhere else during the enforced sabbatical. Then last weekend I finally managed to catch up with their production of The Ocean At the End Of The Lane soon to finish in the West End. But last night was like greeting a long lost but well remembered friend as I settled down to watch my first in house production for some considerable time.
I don’t know whether the NT has made a conscious decision to highlight Welsh drama from the last century but following their recent acclaimed reinvention of Under Milk Wood, here comes another from one of the country’s most successful playwrights. Emlyn William’s The Corn Is Green is, let’s not mince words, a bit of an old potboiler. It’s long on sentimentality and melodrama with many a hackneyed phrase, some reductive characterisation, scant regard for psychological probing and some long outmoded views on class and gender. And yet Dominic Cooke’s current strong revival at the National Theatre undeniably has the magic that sometimes comes with what used to be known as the “well-made play”; it has a clear trajectory, an open hearted attitude to humanity and, in this case, a USP which makes for a fascinating evening.
Spirited Miss Moffat arrives in a rural backwater and shakes up the local population, who are expecting a man, by challenging their perceptions and acting as an all round beacon of light – if you’ve ever wondered about the template for The Vicar Of Dibley, then here it is. Brooking no opposition she sets up a school gradually winning round the locals and inspiring one of her charges, Morgan Evans, to eschew a life down a coal mine and aim for Oxford. As a narrative the outcome is never in doubt – especially as it’s a highly autobiographical piece, so if you know about Williams’ path to academic success and subsequent fame (and there’s plenty about that in the programme) you will have little doubt as to how things will conclude. True there’s a melodramatic crisis/dilemma thrown into the mix in the second half which just might scupper Evans’ chances but even then the stakes never seem that high and the denouement essentially predictable.
What isn’t so predictable, however, is the staging of the piece which takes it way beyond its original concept and reinvents the play much as Stephen Daldry did with another warhorse from the same era, An Inspector Calls. Here Williams himself, played by Gareth David-Lloyd, is introduced as part of a framing narrative to show how the play forms in the writer’s mind and is brought to fruition. Thus, the beginning takes place on a completely stripped back stage (a good chance to see just how huge the Lyttelton is) with no set or props and the writer reciting the, often extensive, stage directions. Actors move to positions according to the narration but there are no props for them to make use of and when they are not “on” sit on the rostra with their backs to the audience. To keep things in context there are sound effects aplenty from Christopher Shutt, so we hear the opening and closing of, as yet, non-existent doors and the tinkle of teaspoons in china cups. The effect is of a radio play with movement; it’s a slightly odd conceit but the meta theatricality gradually draws you in. Then as each scene progresses and the play grows in Williams’ mind, more and more elements are gradually added (lighting, stage furniture, etc.) Thus, the piece becomes less stylised and ever more realistic; by the last scene designer ULTZ supplies a full boxed set replete with detail complemented by lighting (Charles Balfour) which evokes time and place. Ultimately we feel are watching real events which, given the autobiographical slant of the play, in a sense we are.
Leading the cast is Nicola Walker, an actor who always seems to fully inhabit any character she plays (cf Monica Dolan), and she doesn’t disappoint here. On paper the character seems rather one note, yet Walker suggests a real inner life and a passion for her calling which takes her beyond the perilous cliché of a woman on a mission. Iwan Davies in his stage debut also impresses as Morgan and the scenes between the pair are definite highlights. Rufus Wright’s Squire is, unfortunately, a reactionary one dimensional being but that’s down to the writing rather than the acting while Saffron Coomber does an excellent job of maturing Bessie Watty from sailor dressed schoolgirl to knowing young woman in a role that could so easily just have been a plot device. In another departure from the original concept, a small male voice choir of miners inhabit the stage as a Greek chorus as the action unfolds. They add atmosphere and their gorgeous acapella singing tugs at the emotions; they also add another theatrically knowing aspect to proceedings.
Frankly this is a production that could have gone either way success-wise and it’s the concept that saves it and makes it something special helping to reframe the piece for the modern era. Although some of the stereotypical attitudes of the time can’t really be avoided, if you accept them for what they are and for the times which they reflect it’s a play which still passes muster. Even if I didn’t buy the contrived resolution to the “problem” in the second half, the wittiness of Cooke’s staging in having Williams intervene to reroute events at least acknowledges that it is contrived. Once again the National leads the way in getting us to reappraise the classics. If Cooke’s production does half as well and lasts half as long as Daldry’s, then this particular piece of theatrical “corn” is going to remain verdant for a long time to come.