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Reviews West End & Central Published 7 June 2017

Review: Common at the National Theatre

30 May - 5 August 2017

A classic case of biting off more than one can chew: Fergus Morgan responds to the Time Out audience reviews of DC Moore’s Common.

Fergus Morgan
Common at the National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson.

Common at the National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson.

The Time Out user reviews of DC Moore’s Common don’t make for encouraging reading. The show, a co-production between the National Theatre and Headlong, has been subjected to so much TripAdvisory stick online prior to press night that conspiracy theories have been spawned regarding the origin of the abuse. Perhaps it’s all the work of a disgruntled rival playwright? Perhaps it’s a treacherous member of the crew? Perhaps the NT was purposefully asking audiences to bad-mouth it to covertly throw critics off the scent?

Who knows? In the end, all we can do is look the angry public dead in the eye, and pretty much agree with them on all points. Pretty much. 

“Deeply disappointed by this unfocused, plotless mess of a play. Excruciating was the word I used as we left during the interval.” [HM, 6 days ago] 

Well, HM, unfocused is fair, but not plotless. I thought the narrative was pretty clear, if a bit rough around the edges. It’s 1809. A woman – the rakish, whip-smart con-artist Mary (Anne-Marie Duff) – leaves smog-filled industrial London for the rural village she grew up in, intent on rekindling the love she once shared with another woman – febrile, fierce country bumpkin Laura (Cush Jumbo). Standing in her way, though, is Laura’s brother, the Harvest King (John Dalgleish), who’s riven with stress about the village’s poor crop and consumed by an incestuous lust for his sister.  

Moore paints this intimate family tragedy against the broad canvas of land enclosureThe local Lord of the Manor (Tim McMullan) is intent on seizing the village’s common ground and denying the villagers their right to use it, effectively forcing them into poverty-filled, disease-ridden cities. Drop the explosive Mary, a gaggle of itinerant Irish workhands, and a curiously clairvoyant crow into this powderkeg, and the result is a bloody, ritualistic, Wicker Manesque peasant revolt. Tribal warfare. The poshos vs the poor. 

“It’s overly ambitious in taking on pre-Christian agricultural traditions, the abuse of women in 18/19th century England, immigration, industrialisation and the expropriation of common land.” [Paolo T, 3 days ago] 

Thanks, Paolo. That’s a great point. Moore attempts to chow down on an awful lot, infusing Common with a plethora of promising stuff, from a socio-historical analysis of late feudalism and the evolution of agriculture, to a thrillingly audacious contemplation of the role of women in Georgian society. The problem – and it’s a big one – is that he never really sinks his teeth into any of it, flirting with issue after issue, constantly telling rather than showing, until what could have been a compelling, large-scale period piece revealing an oft-overlooked chapter of English history – a kind of latter-day Henry IV, I’m imagining – ends up a scrappy, underdeveloped mish-mash of themes and ideas, which in turn takes its toll on the narrative’s coherence. A classic case of biting off more than one can chew. 

“The swearing seemed completely gratuitous.” [Jo W, 6 days ago] 

Moore’s dialogue is rustic, to say the least. The fruitiness of it – C-bombs and F-bombs ahoy – doesn’t bother me at all, but the faux-archaic-ness of it does. Moore’s characters converse in curiously florid prose that sometimes reaches towards Shakespearean eloquence and sometimes veers towards contemporary colloquialism. It’s generally the kind of Georgian revival banter you get in a Frances Spufford novel, only everyone calls each other a cunt a lot more. And even though it might be historically accurate – although I have my doubts – and makes for the odd chuckle here and there, it drastically affects the piece’s accessibility. For a play that champions the rights of the common people, it doesn’t seem very keen on being understood by them. 

“The playwright must take full responsibility for all the rambling, centreless agony imposed upon an audience which tried hard to stay the interminably long course.” [Julia W, 6 days ago]

I’m not sure that’s true, Julia W. Moore’s play has enormous problems, agreed, but I can just about imagine it working if it were staged with a bit more crash-bang-wallop. As it is, Jeremy Herrin’s production embraces a darkly thrilling, quasi-Pagan, firetorches-at-night vibe (with a little added gore for sensational effect), but doesn’t take it anywhere near far enough. 

As has been well-documented over the last half-century, the Olivier is an impossibly difficult space to fill, and Herrin decides to populate it with people, rather than props. Perhaps the design team were working on a shoestring budget. Richard Hudson’s set, a featureless field of barren earth beneath a vast, scudding grey sky, diminishes rather than emphasises the cast, leaving them to scratch around in the dirt in search of aesthetic context. Heaven knows what it looked like from the circle. The ensemble members – there’s a lot of them – stagger across the stage at intervals, carrying scythes and wheatsheaves with them like villagers in an Age Of Empires strategy game. And Stephen Warbeck’s drum-filled, doomy score does little to heighten the drama, despite its constant presence. 

The cast are patchy too. Duff’s Mary is a charismatic, roguish lead, although we never warm to her capriciousness (an intentional device, or perhaps simply the result of an incoherent character), and McMullan offers debonair, Rickman-ish relief as the ageing local aristo, but there’s little that’s memorable in their support. The problem again is that the untamed, raggedy sprawl of Moore’s text bleeds into the performances too, blurring and obscuring them beyond individuality. 

So it’s not all Moore’s fault. But a lot of it is. 

“We left during the interval and went for chips instead. Should have just gone and had chips.” [AB, 10 hours ago] 

On balance, AB, I think you’re right. You made the wrong call. I went and got a kebab afterwards (because I’m 23 and I’m allowed to), and I think that I enjoyed eating it just as much as I enjoyed sitting through all two-and-a-half hours of Common. And the after-effects will probably stay with me a lot longer too. 

“The National feels like it’s losing its way artistically these days.” [Abi D, 6 days ago] 

Hmm, Abi. Hmm. 

Common is on at the National Theatre until 5th August 2017. Click here for more details.

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Fergus Morgan is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: Common at the National Theatre Show Info


Directed by Jeremy Herrin

Written by DC Moore

Cast includes Anne-Marie Duff, Lois Chimimba, Ian-Lloyd Anderson, Brian Doherty, Trevor Fox, Tim McMullan, Cush Jumbo, John Dalgleish, Edward Wolstenholme, Hannah Hutch, Peta Cornish, Anna Crichlow, Amy Downham, John O'Dowd, Ian Shaw

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