Review: Common, National Theatre

“If I were a man you’d call me rogue; let us do with whore, liar, thief, cunt”

Over the past few years where he may or may not have been studying sculpture at Saint Martin’s College, Northampton-born playwright DC Moore has been putting together a résumé of quietly impressive work – exploring aspects of contemporary masculinity in insightful plays such as the excellent Straight and under-rated monologue Honest, or opening up his focus to the war in Afghanistan in The Empire and family dramas in The Swan. So news that he was making his main-stage debut at the National Theatre with Common, in a co-production with Headlong and starring no less than Anne-Marie Duff and Cush Jumbo, was bright news indeed. 

But whilst I thought I wanted to do what other common people do, Moore has taken a completely different tack here. Common delves into the under-explored history of rural England in 1809 as the social and economic changes heralded by the Industrial Revolution begin to filter through the country. More crucially, his acute ear for sharply observed dialogue has been smothered by the invention of a fruitily rich mode of language full of compound words – described charitably by Jumbo as “a mixture of Shakespeare, Harry Potter and some kind of Angelina Jolie movie”.

You can only wonder why, as the result is denser than the mud that covers the Olivier stage in Richard Hudson’s sparse, open design. The unwieldy nature of the words means it is hard to follow what is going on, who people actually are, why anything is really happening. The action is led by Duff’s Mary, a woman once left for dead by peasant leader King (John Dagleish) who has since made her fortune in the city, who has returned to her native countryside to wreak havoc on those who have wronged her and reclaim Jumbo’s Laura, the woman she loves, who just happens to be King’s sister.

And whilst she wants to sleep with common people (again), Moore also piles on elements of folk horror, paganism, clairvoyance, agrarian reform, disembowelment, incest, talking crows and a big cuddly toy (only one of those is made up). But such ambition weighs heavily on the play and director Jeremy Herrin has not found a way to balance it all (though a tumultuous preview period suggests that this production could develop yet further). Despite the epic scope of the writing and the epic scale of the production, too much of Common is flat and worse, it is dull.

Short of calling your dad to stop it all, there are elements to admire. Duff has the kind of stage presence to almost pull the whole thing through, Wicker Man-like costumery creates an atmospheric edge, and Paule Constable’s lighting is masterful in the way in which it conjures the strangeness of the mood in the land here. And whether you consider it has worked or not, the boldness of the vision here, in the way in which Moore is stretching himself as a playwright cannot be underestimated. It’s just I can’t see anyone else smiling in here.. 

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Johan Persson
Booking until 5th August



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