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Common starring Anne-Marie Duff at the National Theatre – review round-up

Anne-Marie Duff and Cush Jumbo in Common at the National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson
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A country on the brink of a society-defining technological change, viciously divided between the rich and the poor, the town and the country, the haves and the have nots. No, it’s not contemporary Britain, but the early 19th-century England of DC Moore’s Common, the ambitious new play running on the National Theatre’s Olivier stage until August 5.

Billed as “an epic tale of England’s lost land”, this co-production between the NT and Headlong, directed by Headlong helmsman Jeremy Herrin, stars Anne-Marie Duff as Mary, a rakish con-artist who returns home to her native rural village from rapidly industrialising London, only to find it in armed revolt over brutal land enclosure acts.

The National’s summer season in the Olivier didn’t get off to the best start – The Stage condemned Yael Farber’s Salome as “disappointing” and “hollow” – and the early warning signs haven’t been promising for Common either, with awful audience reviews and tales of mass walkouts and drastic cutting during previews.

But can Moore’s play dispel these baleful augurs and find favour with the critics where Salome did not? Can Herrin provide the National with another smash hit, or has he lost his magic touch? Does Duff help Rufus Norris’ summer season burst into life, or does the hungry Olivier swallow two plays whole?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.

Common – Uncommonly Bad?

Anne-Marie Duff. Photo: Johan Persson

So what exactly is Moore’s play about? Some critics struggle even to tell you that.

“Common is genuinely one of the strangest plays I’ve ever seen,” confesses Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★),  who goes on to call it such “a mad, rambling melange of hysterically divergent ideas that occasionally it feels like it conned everybody involved into staging it”.

“Set in early industrial England,” relates Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★), “it tells the story of Mary, who returns to the rural village of her birth after years of living on her wits as a con-artist in respectable London. Part fake fortune teller, part genuine seer (of shifting social status), she arrives back to discover trouble brewing between the peasants/tenant farmers and the local lord, who is viciously intent on enclosing the common land and on bringing in Irish labourers if they do not agree to his schemes.”

“It’s also a portrait of Britain now,” notes Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★), “commenting obliquely on the privatisation of public amenities, the colossal influence of London on other communities, class conflict, the gig economy and the threat of either an unholy coalition or an unconvincing one.”

“But what is Mary’s motive for coming back?,” asks Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★). “Is it revenge on the man who tried to murder her? Or love for Laura, his sister? Or is she there to fuel the fight against enclosure?”

“I never got a sustained grip on either the moral or motivational compass of the serially death-defying Mary,” answers Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★★), and similar confusion proliferates in most other reviews, Charlotte Valori (TheatreCat, ★★) labelling Common a “muddled, missed opportunity of a play”, Ann Treneman (Times, ) dismissing it as “a rustic tangle”, and Fergus Morgan (Exeunt) calling it “a classic case of biting off more than one can chew”.

“Clarity is lacking,” writes Philip Fisher (British Theatre Guide), in perhaps the understatement of the year. “Come the second half, when Mary rises from a grave and chats to a talking crow, while around her the menace spills into visceral violence, the plotting achieves Steven Moffat levels of head-scratching opacity,” writes Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★). “I found it near-impossible to see the wood for the trees.”

And it’s not just what Moore has written that the critics don’t like, it’s how he has written it; “Moore writes in a mangled, mongrel tongue – an ersatz attempt at a sort of olde countryspeak,” explains Matt Trueman (What’s On Stage, ).

“He pulls the Deadwood trick of swapping out blasphemy for profanity – this is a very expletive-heavy play,” adds Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★). “But the words don’t trip easily off the tongue – they tumble, they get tangled up.”

Only a handful of critics don’t mind Moore’s language. For Billington, it has an “oaken richness” and for Aleks Sierz (The Arts Desk, ★★), “it pulses with the rhythms of the past”.

Common – Ritualistic Rubbish

Lois Chimimba. Photo: Johan Persson

If anyone can salvage something from DC Moore’s play, it’s Jeremy Herrin, whose NT productions of Duncan MacMillan’s People, Places and Things and James Graham’s This House received boundless critical acclaim and successful West End transfers. Can he work some magic here?

His direction gets a lot more love than Moore’s text, that’s for sure. His production is “sumptuous” and “undeniably atmospheric”, according to Trueman, “visually striking” according to Hitchings, and “has a wild rural menace and genuine sense of the other”, according to Lukowski.

“Jeremy Herrin’s impressive production for Headlong takes a painterly approach to the text,” writes Billington. “Richard Hudson’s design and Paule Constable’s lighting show figures etched against a vast, mud-flecked cyclorama. As the workers scour the land, I am reminded of Jean-Francois Millet’s painting The Gleaners. Yet we are constantly reminded of the countryside’s pagan past as figures with straw masks and animal heads dance to Stephen Warbeck’s rough music.”

“Richard Hudson’s set, a great circle of dirt, richly lit by Paule Constable, emphasises the centrality of the land to their lives,” chimes Tripney. “Occasionally, a John Barleycorn figure appears and blades are wielded. The National’s prop department has had some fun – there’s a dead dog and an abundance of guts, as well as that creepy crow.”

“Once or twice I felt as if I was watching a folkloric English equivalent of the diabolic Clint Eastwood western High Plains Drifter, perhaps randomly intercut with The Wicker Man,” writes Shuttleworth.

“Its starkest image is of collective kills, as if a community that once farmed together, now hunts together,” notes Trueman. “They form a mass of masked bodies; individuals hiding behind animal skulls and vegetal matter as they set on individual enemies and tear them limb from limb. Innards are ripped out, skulls caved in with rocks. It would be deeply unsettling were the rest not so confounding.”

“Once we get beyond lynching to disembowelling and cutting people’s hearts out, it all looks deliciously, stickily real,” agrees Valori. “Sadly, however, we just don’t care.”

Common – Weighed Down With Words

Cush Jumbo. Photo: Johan Persson

Duff is no stranger to shouldering a large burden. She last appeared at the National playing the lead in the DH Lawrence adaptation Husbands and Sons, and recently starred as May in Ella Hickson’s time-hopping drama Oil at the Almeida. How does she fare here?

“She is brilliantly entertaining,” writes Lukowski, “with a burning charisma and easy confidence that occasionally lets us forget that we have no fucking idea why any of this is happening.”

“Duff is a swaggering, larger-than-life heroine, a picaresque adventurer who schemes, bewitches, seduces and when all else fails fights tooth and claw to get her way,” confirms Marianka Swain (Broadway World, ★★).

Some, though, reckon Duff struggles under the weight of Moore’s ragged text. “While Duff is her usual magnetic self and great at keeping things moving, the effort of doing so is often written on her face,” observes Tripney.

“As for the cast, it’s high praise to say they play this as if it made total sense,” expands Trueman. “It’s easy to sniff at the idea that acting takes courage, but to step out on stage, in front of 1,200 people, in a play this full of potholes is ballsy beyond measure. Duff deserves the George Cross for the brio she brings to Mary, and Jumbo plays Laura with a committed sincerity.”

Not all are as laudatory of the hard-working cast, though. “Duff is curiously flat for large stretches of the story, with only occasional sparks of genuine feeling,” opines Sierz. “In support, Cush Jumbo’s Laura and John Dagleish’s King struggle to convince, while Lois Chimimba (who plays two minor characters) and Tim McMullan (Lord) are not always clear.”

Common – Is it any good?

The advance warnings were spot on, it seems. With only a few three-star reviews, a plethora of two-stars and a couple of one-stars from What’sOnStage and the Times, it’s fair to say that the critics didn’t exactly warm to DC Moore’s new play.

Too confused, too unfocused and too impenetrable is the general consensus, and although Herrin’s atmospheric production provides a few thrilling sparks, and Duff puts in a decent performance, they’re nowhere near enough to set light to Moore’s stinker of a play.

Norris has a couple of clangers on his hands then, with Salome and Common choking up the National’s biggest auditorium until August.

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