Common should have been one of this year’s theatrical highlights – a vindication of The National’s fresh direction.
D.C. Moore’s play explores untrodden territory for English theatre: the requisitioning of ‘common’ land at the height of the Enclosure Acts in 1809 – the starting point of the gradual privatisation of Britain’s public space. Add to this central theme drunkenness, gendered abuse, murderous tension between local labourers and Irish immigrants, pagan ritual, and a lesbian love affair, and Common promises to be a play filled with ideas and political potency. Sadly, in actuality, it is a historically hazy, underdeveloped mess that confuses where it should enlighten, and provokes disbelieving laughter where it should produce powerful drama.
It starts encouragingly. Against an understated but evocative horizon-backdrop, rag-wearing labourers in wicker-man-style masks converge onto a mud-covered stage, rattling up a foreboding din. The din quickly dies down as a lady in a regal red dress appears: our confidant, Mary (Anne Marie Duff). Ah Mary, the exiled-labourer-turned-London-Lady, come to win back her lover and reap revenge on the harvest-king (her lover’s brother), who beat and banished her…
Or so she says. Throughout we never know whether Mary is telling the truth or if she be ‘woman’ at all. Though Duff does her utmost to singlehandedly carry the play, as the lead character Mary ultimately confuses it. Mary could be a psychic, a diabolic phantom, an immortal ‘everywoman’ or a symbolic character for Change. Mary hints at so many characters and concepts that she ends up not really embodying any of them – though maybe it is more that by the end of the play, you just don’t really care to work her out any longer.
More detrimentally, the play severely lacks intrigue and tension. The story unfolds far too quickly – as soon as a plot-line is set up, it is resolved. And in the second half the plot is lost completely. Since its premier, Common has been cut by thirty minutes, which either explains its disjointedness, or exposes just how muddled it was before.
Then there is the fundamental failure of the play’s climactic set-pieces. The ritualistic opening scene is frustratingly short and needs longer to fully establish an atmosphere of ominous, pagan bloodlust. Meanwhile the finales of both the first and second half are weakly staged to the point of becoming melodramatic and even unintentionally laughable.
The dearth of drama isn’t helped by an underused set design. At one point the print-like backdrop starts rippling in curtain-like waves to recreate a blustering wind, enforcing the harshness of the barren agricultural landscape. But for the most part, the set’s potential is neglected.
There has also been much criticism of Moore’s contorted language that, with its upside-down syntax and compound words, reads more like riddling poetry than naturalistic dialogue. While dense, I found the language vibrant and (mostly) accessible. The script is poetic and delights in finding creative ways to swear, although at points the profanity was puerile and self-consciously provocative – “fist fuck you and all your family” for example. For me, this self-consciousness was far more alienating than Common’s language. In addition to Mary’s confiding in the audience, the awkwardly self-aware humour not only broke the fourth wall, but also any semblance of stylistic and historical unity.
In Common there is the seed of a really engaging and apposite piece of theatre. As it is, Moore’s play is crowded with ideas and nowhere near as powerful or enlightening as it could have been. Unfortunately, this continues the trend with many of The National’s recent productions: exciting original ideas filled with promise, but disappointingly executed.
Featured image: Johan Persson.