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Kate Burton once wanted to be a diplomat, and traces of that ambition infuse her work on stage. Her Hedda Gabler had ravishing polish, her Madame Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard was an acute listener to the travails of others, and her schoolteacher Miss Moffat, in the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s production of The Corn is Green, moves her pupils round the classroom with the canniness of Metternich.
Corn reunites Burton with the director Nicholas Martin. They have such a shorthand that a truncated rehearsal time apparently posed no impediment to this clear, satisfying interpretation of Emlyn Williams’s 1938 play about a teacher’s effect on students in a Welsh mining town.
Theatregoers with long memories may think they could give this staging a pass. Why re-roast a chestnut that starred Ethel Barrymore on Broadway, Bette Davis in the movie and again in a famously ill-conceived musical, and Cicely Tyson in an evanescent version on Broadway in 1983?
Hesitation is justified in one sense: the play itself is no more than serviceable. The storytelling can be heavy-handed, with sentimentality ladled on. I like Welsh folk songs as well as the next bloke, but their recorded use here, to ground us in late-19th-century village life, is sometimes less heartwarming than clichéd. Yet the implication of the lyrics – English owners growing fat off Welsh workers – can strip the sentimentality like coal chipped by one of the gruff miners.
The actors do their own kind of mining – of the text. The leading lady’s father, Richard Burton, was of course Welsh, so her feel for the words is instinctive. As her prize pupil Morgan Evans, Burton’s real-life son Morgan Ritchie also has a feel for the drama’s geography, yet it is too early to assess his potential. For now, let’s say just that he looks comfortable up on the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s main stage.
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