As a title,
Every year the National puts on a forgotten play set around this time. Most years it just reminds us why it has been forgotten.
But perhaps this ambiguity was a purposeful decision by writer Emlyn Williams.
If the title made it clearer that this was a semi-autobiographical, polemic-lite on education set in late 19th century Wales, thick in cliché and thin on character, it may not get the audience.
The foundations for the story come from Williams’ own schooldays in North Wales. Specifically it is inspired by the influence of one teacher, Miss Cooke, who nurtured his talent for language and learning. The teacher ultimately helped Williams leave Wales by getting a place at Oxford University, leading to a life in London as a writer and actor.
A nice enough story. But a dull play.
In The Corn is Green, Williams makes the “hoorah for education” the central point, attempting to unpick connotations around tradition, self-betterment, and xenophobia (in its original definition). The voice over may be “How a strong woman helped an overlooked boy develop his talent, leave mining behind him and become a star.”
If that sounds a bit Billy Elliot, in essence it is. Go back a century. Replace ballet with books. Relocate from a mining community in Newcastle to a mining village in Wales. And replace Elton John with 10 or so men from a Welsh Male Voice Choir. (Feel free to write your own tabloid headline there.)
It could be Billy Elliot: 1885. The Preboot.
Emphasising the semi
Emphasising the semi, rather than the autobiographical, Williams morphs into 15-year-old Morgan Evans. Before we discover his talent, Evans is painted as a typical cheeky rapscallion – asking strange ladies he meets for a kiss, twice – with a sad backstory – working in the mines and living alone since his entire family died five years ago.
In his professional debut, Iwan Davies does well to convey the loneliness of this child forced into adulthood. But he is restricted by a part that is, like most here, woefully underwritten. Before his final-act emotionally rousing speech, the character can’t have spoken more than a dozen lines.
The main protagonist is the Miss Cooke inspired teacher. Miss Moffat arrives in the village, planning to spend her vast inheritance educating the children currently working the mines. Miss Moffat is strong of opinion, middle-aged, wealthy, and unmarried, all of which cause consternation in the village for being traits better associated with a man. As such, her ambitions are thwarted from all sides.
You may wonder what fuels this ambition. Or why she chose this village. Or whether it’s necessary to dress her in the high-waisted skirt, tight blouse and pulled back hair, so often lazily used to represent 19th century lesbians.
All good questions. I have no answers.
Miss Moffat has been played by the likes of Sybil Thorndike and Ethel Barrymore (in the original London and Broadway casts respectively), Katharine Hepburn and Cicely Tyson (in 1980s’ revivals) and Bette Davis (in the 1948 film, and the short-lived musical version that followed). Adding to this list is Nicola Walker, best known for TV dramas Unforgotten, The Split and Last Tango in Halifax.
Stylistically, Walker is quite different to those other actors. Her performance is more controlled and nuanced. She makes text sound so effortlessly natural, it’s easy to forget the mastery behind it. Walker is adept at bringing characters to life through the smallest of facial expressions. Her performances draw you in. Perversely this means they also rarely stand out. She is always excellent but never showy.
It’s a welcome return to Walker who last performed at the National ten years ago in The Curious Incident. It’s disappointing that the play she returns in falls short of her ability.
Fact and fantasy
About to give up on her plans due to the opposition faced, Miss Moffat flicks through a left-behind schoolbook. In a poem called My Holiday, she reads the line, “when I walk through the (mine) I can touch…where the corn is green.”
The moment changes everything. The line reignites her belief in an education for every child. And specifically an education for Morgan Evans.
It also finally gives relevance to the play’s title.
For this conceit to work, we must accept the metaphor has a spark of genius to it. That it has come from the pen of a writer whose talents may be equitable to Shakespeare or Tennyson. This much we are told.
It only feels odd when grounded in the truth. That Williams, the writer, wrote this line and ascribed it to the character based on his child self. He also wrote the high praise and the assumptions of talent given to the writer. And then he used this self-proclaimed outstanding metaphor as the name of the play.
It somehow blurs fact and fantasy.
For the rest of the play, the villagers get on board, the classes grow, and they try to get the boy into Oxford. Most of the studying is offstage.
Passing time, the supporting cast generally do their best with the scraps provided.
From the village, we have the Squire (Rufus Wright) who wheezes and flusters as though being flashed a pair of breasts before every other sentence. Alice Orr-Ewing does her best to make us not hate Miss Ronberry, the clueless simpering assistant teacher in an array of ill-fitting frocks, always ready to take a beating if it’s what the gentleman requires. And Mr Jones, who we are told is conflicted between his Welsh heritage and the English promise. This isn’t demonstrated, but Richard Lynch does seem permanently exasperated behind his plentiful (assumedly stuck-on) facial hair which may also be the beard for his paedophile tendencies.
Arriving with Miss Moffat is her housekeeper Mrs Watty. An ex-thief saved somehow by the teacher and now reborn as Salvation Army captain, the character lacks belief and Jo McInnes can do little else but play her for laughs.
Saffron Coomber performance as Mrs Watty’s daughter, Bessie, seems out of kilter with the others. It feels unnatural, and lacks self-belief, as though Coomber was a late joining the cast. But one wonders if less time has been spent on the character. She is an uncomfortable reminder of the time this play was written. It’s easier to look away.
The male gaze
Bessie epitomises the male gaze at its worst. A one-dimensional female character written by a man to be cast solely as villain. She is at times a liar, thief, blackmailer, gossip, and ultimately whore.
She is written without empathy. Her devout Christian mother wishes she’d never been born. Others refer to her as vile, inhuman, unworthy of redemption or time. Her flirtatiousness is blamed for the old man’s sexual attraction, and for her pregnancy.
The play pertains to challenging stereotypes, but the writing of Bessie reminds us just how deeply intrinsic sexism was back then. The hypocrisy it displays would be laughable, though I worry it still passes us by unnoticed. Even a 21st century audience will likely leave the play feeling only resentment for the character. That should worry us all.
Director Dominic Cooke has added the role of Emlyn Williams to the cast. We see him (in the 1920s) struggling to write the script between acts. Remaining on stage throughout, he speaks lines, makes edits, and reads stage directions around the actors. It makes us focus on the quality of the text. This is a bad idea. It gives a sense that the play is fresh from development. This is a worse idea.
The construct quickly becomes formulaic. It may have seemed great for five minutes in early rehearsal but should have been culled before it got so laboured. It is a meta miss-hit.
Every year the National puts on a forgotten play set around this time. Most years it just reminds us why it has been forgotten. Paper-thin characters, flimsy plots, and outdated sexism aren’t what we need to keep theatre alive.
On the bright side, it is a true joy to see the talented Nicola Walker on stage again. Next time, let it be with less time passed and with more quality to the vehicle.