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Wednesday, November 9, 2022

The week in theatre: Jerusalem; The Corn Is Green; Marys Seacole | Theatre

After Covid, comfort in the stalls. That, at any rate, was last year’s favourite theory: that post-pandemic theatre, seeking security by turning to familiar musicals and plays, was likely to go tepid. Here is a week that proves the conclusion wrong. Two revivals – one restaging of a brilliant 13-year-old production, one complete remaking of an 82-year-old play – are both in turn rousing and disturbing. Both are unmissable.

Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem first burst into the Royal Court in 2009, bringing a luscious roll of language, a group of wayward spirits new to the stage and a 3D sensuality (smells reeked off the boards). Mark Rylance’s performance as Johnny “Rooster” Byron proved to be one of the most magnificent acting events of the past 20 years.

Centring on a caravan dweller/drug dealer/free spirit and his followers – disapproved of, opposed and eventually set upon by the residents of a local estate and the council – the play swings beautifully, painfully between celebration and lament. Today its hedonism is more strongly laced with alarm.

Director Ian Rickson preserves his original staging without embalming it. Ultz’s design features the same glade, in which the action buzzes but the air seems still, and where, thanks to thoughtful lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin, it is sometimes hard to know whether the glow is fading or growing. Certain references – among them a joke about “Spooky Spice” – make it a striking portrait of its time. Other aspects have accrued a grimmer, sadder tinge. In the post-Brexit age of refugees, the lad from the abattoir who considers anyone outside Wiltshire a foreigner becomes a more significant figure. In a post-#MeToo world the young girls who flit around snorting and flirting look more obviously threatened.

Mackenzie Crook is again subtly wistful as the perpetually disappointed would-be DJ, playing with the zip of his jacket as if it were an instrument. Indra Ové is particularly memorable as Rooster’s former lover, Dawn, caught between hardness and melting. Still, it is Rylance who makes this a St Crispin’s Day moment: think yourself accursed you were not there. His combination of physicality and verbal nimbleness is unique. He does a headstand into a water trough, flicks a firelighter like a juggling toy, suggests his roosterishness with winglike elbows. He delivers with ardour his magic and bonkersness: this is the man who, just down the road from a Little Chef, came across the giant who built Stonehenge. A master of the pause and apparent stumble, his words bubble up from a blur of hesitation and chaos, flaming into life against a dark background, like the play itself.

Everything about The Corn Is Green is right, for the National and the nation. Not green but ripe for this moment. Emlyn Williams’s 1938 play shows the UK as the divided country it still is. It stars a schoolteacher: when has the need for learning seemed more pressing? That schoolteacher is an unmarried woman: the stage – as hinted at in Scandaltown last month – is waking up to the fact that not all women without husbands have wasted lives. Dominic Cooke’s production rewires the drama so that its historical importance is shown, its autobiographical element made vivid, its currency made vivacious.

Nicola Walker in The Corn Is Green.
Nicola Walker in The Corn Is Green. Photograph: Johan Persson

At the centre, Nicola Walker – she of The Split and Unforgotten – plays the teacher, Miss Moffat: Williams, a tremendous phrase-maker, described the real-life character on which she was based as having “eyes like a boxer smacking a punch-ball”. Walker catches that exactly: never tremulous nor trembling but quickening to everything around her (though, having, it turns out, a blind spot). Arriving in a Welsh village, Miss Moffat finds that 10-year-old boys, working down the pit, cannot read or write. They are Welsh speakers: we might as well be in a foreign country, grumbles one of the local toffs. She takes up a particularly gifted boy – an essay in which he talks of reaching out of the darkness of the mine gives its title to the play. She teaches him Greek, she enters him for Oxford, she takes him away from his old life.

This is a story full of feeling, verging on the sentimental, and one that in its later stages has several unlikely plot twists. But it is not psychologically blunt – Williams knew about the dangers of saviourism – and Cooke rescues it from its difficulties by a great wheeze. A man in a tux circles the evening, coming from glitter and ballroom, sinking back into memory: the playwright is constructing the play in front of our eyes, delivering stage directions and once stopping the action to rerun it.

It is a device that gives edge to the sometimes soft focus and to period-piece characters such as the stuffed-shirt squire. It also brings home the fact that this is the playwright’s own story: Williams himself starred in the first production. Circling the stage a male voice choir, singers dressed as miners, tugs at the heart. One of the subtleties of Cooke’s production is that the men sing not the boisterous Men of Harlech (as in the Bette Davis movie of The Corn Is Green) but Calon Lân, the song that wishes for a pure heart. They light up the stalls.

Jackie Sibblies Drury’s new play Marys Seacole also seeks to show how past and present are fused: in this case by racism and misogyny, which runs down through generations. Drury is a true playwright: her 2019 play Fairview plunged audiences into disarray with a tremendous coup de theatre, confronting the spectators with their own expectations about black and white characters. She has a magnetic subject in Mary Seacole, the pioneering nurse sometimes dubiously called “the black Florence Nightingale” (why not the other way round?). Nadia Latif’s production has in Kayla Meikle an actor who burns steadily – bold and visionary in a series of incarnations.

Kayla Meikle, right, with Déja Bowens in Marys Seacole.
‘Visionary’: Kayla Meikle, right, with Déja Bowens in Marys Seacole. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Marys Seacole is a string of impassioned fragments in which Seacole is imagined as a succession of Marys: the historic figure in starched black robe and lace cuffs, being patronised by Nightingale, and as her blue-uniformed, latter-day NHS counterpart, treated with casual condescension by white visitors. Despite vivid flashes – in particular, the reconstruction of a practice emergency response to a terrorist incident – the play is often sluggishly overexplicit. There is fizzingly dextrous acting from Esther Smith and Olivia Williams, playing a multiplicity of roles. Still, the century-leaping scenes, topped and tailed by long, explanatory speeches at the beginning and end of the evening, reinforce rather than inflect each other. The central brutal statement by a black character, looking towards England, has been proved true: “Them need us but them no want us.” It deserves a better play.

Star ratings (out of five)
Jerusalem ★★★★★
The Corn Is Green ★★★★★
Marys Seacole ★★

  • Jerusalem is at the Apollo, London, until 7 August

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