Common at the National Theatre review ***

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Common

National Theatre, 28th June 2017

Is it possible to feel sorry for a play? Common has had some pretty poor reviews from the criterati and the public alike and there are tons of tickets left for the month or so left on the run.

Well I can’t pretend it isn’t without some pretty deep flaws but I didn’t think it was as bad as some have painted. As usual the Tourist has come late to the run. I gather it has been subject to some judicious cuts and it might be that the cast has become more attuned to playwright DC Moore’s curious and fruity language. It is a bit bonkers and a long way from what I had expected but I have seen much worse.

Our heroine Mary, played by Anne-Marie Duff who proves once again she is incapable of a having an off day at work, returns to her unspecified “home” after a spell in the den of iniquity that is London. Why she returns is never made clear. She might be seeking to exact revenge on her “brother” King (John Dagleish), she might be returning to her love, and “sister” Laura (a spirited Cush Jumbo), she might be seeking to help the ‘”villagers” succumb to the pernicious consequences of land enclosure. She has run ins with a bunch of Irish labourers, with the “Lord” (a perfectly cast though somewhat reticent Tim McMullan) and the Lord’s henchman Heron (Trevor Fox in full on Geordie) and with assorted villagers including the naive Eggy Tom (a touching Lois Chimimba). She, Mary, dies, is resurrected and then wreaks various revenges. Is she a con-woman, a seer, a harbinger? Who knows.

The programme some excellent essays. One is on the impact of enclosure on rural England from the late Medieval period, through the Tudors and, most aggressively, in the last C18 and early C19, when Common is set (1809). Capital has been screwing over labour, in more or less brutal ways, from the off and there is hardly anything more vital for theatre to examine. Another essay is on the importance of magic and spirits in the everyday existence of the “common people” alongside established religion and in the absence of universal education. These are interesting and important themes that the play seeks to explore. However, the slipperiness of the plot, and the focus on how the characters sound and look, serves to obscure these themes in my view.

DC Moore’s text in parts is written in a mangled, “rustic” English (think Yoda as a Wurzel) with plenty of profanity. Most of the criterati don’t seem to get on with this at all. I did. It takes a bit of getting used to but I think this, together with the lighting (Paula Constable deserves a special mention), the sound, the costumes, the set (though once again the Olivier stage offered too much space to the production) and the appropriate music written by Stephen Warbeck, all served to create an atmosphere which I think worked to the play’s advantage. And, as I have indicated, the performances, in large part, gave as good as they got with the material on offer.

The faults then for me largely lie in the meandering plot and the absence of an overarching narrative. This was not some non naturalistic, surreal or absurdist theatre. There was a story and there were ideas; they simply didn’t coalesce. I think Jeremy Herrin, the director, and the Headlong production team, who can normally be relied upon to manufacture a “hit”, probably know Common is a way off what they all hoped to create, but I for one would still applaud their bravery in trying to make this work.

So overall then I don’t think this is quite the turkey that some have painted it as. Yes it does fall down on many counts but it is also, in my view, interesting in other ways. You have been warned but if your expectations have been set low you might be pleasantly surprised if you do splurge all of £15 on one of the remaining performances.

And I wouldn’t mind betting that one day, after a re-write and a re-think, it comes back and is heralded as a misunderstood classic. Mind you it won’t be at the National I suspect.

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