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Emlyn Williams’ semi-autobiographical drama hasn’t been seen in London since 1985. The play follows Morgan Evans, a young Welsh miner with hidden academic talents. He finds himself being moulded into Oxford material by indomitable teacher Miss Moffat, who has barrelled into the rural Welsh community determined to educate illiterate children. Having lain dormant for so long, you’d be forgiven for assuming this play doesn’t speak much to present times. But Dominic Cooke’s production breathes new life into a dusty text.
We open at a glittering 1920s party, out of which Williams himself (portrayed playfully by Gareth David-Lloyd) steps to reflect on his past. This is a creative – and handy – framing device that helps iron out some of the problems of the play. Williams acts as a kind of puppet-master, conjuring the setting onto a blank stage before our eyes; characters are placed, stage directions are decided, and slowly the production comes to life around him. Making it a recollection exercise for Williams reminds us that this story, or at least part of it, is true – he did himself move on from the Welsh valleys to find success as an actor and writer, thanks in part to an inspirational teacher in his life.
Cooke’s production is technically and aurally stunning. In the early sections, Christopher Shutt’s sound and Charles Balfour’s lighting designs are given space to shine against stripped-back starkness. ULTZ’s set design smartly introduces itself layer upon layer, evolving into a complete world by the second act. Will Stuart’s beautiful score, sung by a male-voice choir, provides the soundtrack. They serve as a Greek chorus, observing the action and producing goosebump-inducing acapella harmonies that weave effortlessly into the fabric of the production.
Nicola Walker delivers a captivating, nuanced performance as Miss Moffat, conveying the character’s brazen approach with dry wit. Her every look carries a wealth of meaning. Iwan Davies in his debut as the prodigy Evans is wonderful, bringing to life a somewhat underdeveloped character. This two-dimensionality feels a lot to do with time jumps in the script. At the end of the first act, Evans is – understandably – racked with conflict about Miss Moffat essentially stripping him of his language, his identity, and shoving her ideas of ‘properness’ (that is, speaking English) down his throat. Then suddenly, it’s two years later and those concerns appear to have melted away. It’s jarring, but Cooke’s attentive direction smooths it over.
The play isn’t without its uncomfortable caricatures. The posh Squire (played with appropriate buffoonery by Rufus Wright), who believes the working classes are better left uneducated, comments of the Welsh language: ‘it’s worse than being abroad’. This receives the wrong kind of laugh from the NT’s predominantly white, middle-class audience.
Ultimately though, Cooke’s production is a rejuvenation. The lasting feeling is one of hope: for the power of education and language, and their potential for nudging us into broader, more colourful horizons.
National Theatre, until June 11; nationaltheatre.org.uk