National Theatre (Olivier)
24th June, 2017, matinee
This is the age of the clickbait blogger as Richard Jordan wrote in The Stage last week. As a blog with a (comparatively) small readership people might think it was inevitable that I was going to like Common simply to be different from most of the other reviews! But genuinely, despite and perhaps because of its faults and disarray, DC Moore has written a unique and strange play, and (putting aside the platitudinous of this cliché) the National should be applauded rather than condemned for putting it on the Olivier stage.
I wrote a piece about Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities today about typical tropes in that play. I partly wrote it because it made me think how Common doesn’t adhere to all of these techniques which made for a very different theatregoing experience; not necessarily better but certainly more distinctive. And if the play is purposefully elusive it gives an excuse for this review being wishy washy. The play is set in the early 19th century, when an upsurge in parliamentary acts saw common land move from collective to individual ownership. You’d be forgiven for thinking that a play which basically looks at the foundations of our economic system and which carries plenty of current undertones to public commodities being sold off would be more political than it is. However, Moore instead takes the play down a more haunting route. Brought back to life, soothsayer Mary (Anne-Marie Duff, in striking red) returns to her village where enclosure of the land is taking place.
Duff lends Mary the presence and quality of voice that is often afforded to a classical role. Where else in contemporary drama (I’m inviting a list) is there a female protagonist quite as bold as this? Top Girls? Mary is at times as audacious, infamous and seemingly invincible as Johnny Rooster Byron. She delivers meta-asides to the audience, including “If my language some offends, fist-fuck you all.” We also see her lesbian relationship with her sister Laura (Cush Jumbo) and how she yearns to take her to Boston (Massachusetts, not Lincoln). But Laura says that she doesn’t want to move because she was 'born, lived and made here'. It is clear that the land in Common has potency in Moore’s play; people are born and die by it, and are defined by it, in terms of class, wealth and spirit.
As singular as Common feels, there are comparisons that can be made to other plays. There’s a gruesome disembowelling of an Irish man in the second act much like the powerful ending of David Rudkin’s Afore Night Come. In Common, such a ritualistic lynching of an outsider highlights the point that borders separating bits of land also divides people. Yet, whereas Rudkin’s play builds up to the murder in a moment which is shocking, mythical and sacrificial, in Common it is part of a list of otherness including pagan rituals and incest. (I realise this is sounding a bit ‘Billington’: “For better Irish murders see Rudkin’s 1960 Afore Night Come!”). Elsewhere, the language and plot – in my opinion at least – seemed as impenetrably beguiling as that in Howard Barker’s Victory: the one that opens with ‘In your own time, of course, at your very own cunt leisure’. Moore’s play isn’t always clear – its dialects, language and therefore its plot are sometimes difficult to grasp – but this is quite refreshing. I’ve seen the play and I don’t fully know what was going on in it, yet I can’t sneer at that but admire it for being completely left-field. Finally, probably unintentionally, there are a number of striking similarities to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Mary has come back to life after being killed, something which she repeats at the beginning of act two. In a striking moment, clouds swirling overhead, we see a hand come up through the mud followed by the rest of Duff, after which she stands next to her own grave and starts conversing with a talking crow. Plot-wise, this is all echoing American Gods. Moore’s play and Herrin’s production don’t quite reach the magic realist style of the TV drama but this ambition is nonetheless enjoyable.
The villagers may think the land is ‘unshifting’ but Richard Hudson’s mud covered stage uses the Olivier’s drum revolve effectively. It is at once ever changing, producing beds and graves coming from underground, and yet doesn’t look very fertile. Meanwhile, Paule Constable’s lighting casts large shadows on the back wall. However, it is peculiar that this design is interjected by a white cut-out of a stately home in the play’s dying moments. Aesthetically, it’s as if the play becomes Arcadia. I suppose there’s a point in there about the land being enclosed off for capital means and being in the hands of rich landowners but it’s not as effectively jarring as it perhaps should be.
I feel that Moore and Herrin were trying to more deeply mine the mythic quality of the pastoral that has been explored before, from the plays of Jez Butterworth to Crimp’s The Country. Muddy and mysterious but by no means a mess.
Common runs at the National Theatre, Olivier, until 5th August.
|Anne-Marie Duff as Mary in Common. Photo: Johan Persson|