Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Galvanising Revival of 1938 Play

Emlyn Williams

The Corn is Green , Lyttelton Theatre, London , June 16, 2022
Emlyn Williams by The Corn is Green There is a wisdom in audiences. The National Theatre's revival of Emlyn Williams' 1938 coming-of-age play runs for two hours and twenty minutes. Williams has written a few good one-liners. These raise a laugh but the audience is mainly quietly attentive.

Come the last line and it is over to us. The response is overwhelming. The clapping and shouting continues; twice the company leaves the stage and returns. The response feels to be more than just a post-Covid-19 effect. That certainly is there; talk returns repeatedly to the joy that the restoration of public space has meant. The scars of the time of pandemic, the psychic and the bodily, are going to take a long time to set right.

"The Corn is Green" has a string of Welsh names in it. Behind the scenes Jac Ifan Moore is associate director to Dominic Cooke. His may well be the hand behind the exquisite tones of the choir. He was in the same associate role when National Dance and Marc Rhys combined memorably in 2017 for “P.A.R.A.D.E."

Since the return of performance the National Theatre has been kind to the classics of Wales. There was not a seat to be had in May 2021 for the re-inventing of "Under Milk Wood." Many in Wales took the journey to the South Bank; the degree of enthused Welsh to be heard in the bar afterwards was, I was told by one who was there, so great that it felt like being in Carmarthenshire.

At "the Corn is Green" it raises not an eyebrow when I say to an audience neighbour about "byw yng Ngheredigion." Like a year ago theatre-goers of Wales are making the journey to see a drama of Wales. The box office confirms the numbers are substantial.

Dominic Cooke's revival has won critical praise without a dissenter. The play has been set within a framing device whereby the playwright- Gareth David-Lloyd never off-stage- himself observes the life of his younger self. The framing scenario includes a group of miners and affecting song. Williams was born in Mostyn and the Point of Ayr mine, owned by Lord Mostyn, was nearby. The play is "a Billy Elliot of the Valleys" said a foremost London critic on the grounds that if it is mines it must be South Wales. Commentators took to task the review to point out that the village of Glansarno is far distant.

David Benedict, a critic of note, wrote for the Stage: "Cooke's exquisite work on "the Corn is Green", complete with the subtlest of closing nods to the playwright's sexuality, is like watching the theatrical equivalent of invisible mending...it is, almost magically, more Emlyn Williams than Williams' original."

Theatre performance, by definition an art of the ever-present, has a relationship of delicacy with its past. At one extreme a directorial uber-ego may trample a vintage play. At the other an informed intelligence, one such as Mike Poulton, can amplify the best elements and down-play the least enduring. Benedict's commentary is correct; the text itself has weaknesses in characterisation, not least the women beyond the driven teacher herself, Miss Moffat.

The emphasis is the core, the passage of gifted pupil Morgan Evans (Iwan Davies) from miner-in-waiting to university scholarship. It is told with a fullness of truth that includes the separation from background. Morgan becomes known in the pub as teacher's puppy. It is the same pain experienced by Davey Fenwick in Cronin's "the Stars Look Down." In a neatness of pattern Davey's wily antagonist, Joe Gowland, is played with huge aplomb in Carol Reed's film by Emlyn Williams.

The core of "The Corn is Green" is its assertion of the value and the power of a liberal education. Morgan's route to emancipation takes in classical languages, J S Mill, discussion of the politics of Parnell. It is a route opened by talent but achieved with strenuous effort and resolution. It is a theme that is itself traditional but uncommon in current culture. It is a part of the response that the audience gave to this affecting production.

The many names of Wales in the company include Richard Lynch, Gwion Glyn, John Ieuan Jones, Sion Emlyn, Garyn Williams, Steffan Hughes.

Emlyn Williams’ plays have been revived for production, albeit not frequently.

"Night Must Fall" (1935) was directed by Terry for Theatr Clwyd and toured in the winter of 2005.

"The Light of Heart" (1940) was directed by Lora Davies for Theatr Clwyd and reviewed below 2015

"Accolade" (1950) was directed by Blanche McIntyre reviewed below 2014.

Illustration, with thanks, Stefan Person

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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