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Common review at National Theatre, London – ‘ambitious but impenetrable’

Anne-Marie Duff and Cush Jumbo in Common at the National Theatre. Photo: Johan Persson

DC Moore’s huge, bamboozling play, Common, is strangely unengaging and stilted for something that features folk horror, lesbianism, disembowelling, human sacrifice and an animatronic crow.

This is a departure for Moore, whose past work includes the Afghanistan-set The Empire and pub-microcosm The Swan. But Moore is from Northamptonshire and rural poet John Clare has been a source of inspiration before, so it makes sense that he would use the enclosure of common land as the basis for his wayward English epic .

The play is set in the early 19th century, at a time of change. Anne-Marie Duff plays Mary, an orphan, believed drowned, who returns home after a period living in London as prostitute to reunite with the woman she loves, Cush Jumbo’s Laura. A skilled liar and dissembler, she lays claim to having psychic gifts – though this actually may be the one time she’s not being loose with the truth. There’s a dash of Becky Sharp to her scheming and plotting. She meets Tim McMullan’s wealthy but heir-less landowner and they form a bond. There’s also an incest subplot. Possibly. It’s hard to tell.

Because Common is not the easiest of plays to follow. It’s not that the plot itself is confusing, more the language Moore uses; it’s full of clunky compound adjectives – he never uses one word where he can use two – and un-words; “unnormal”, “unriddled.” He pulls the Deadwood trick of swapping out blasphemy for profanity – this is a very expletive-heavy play – but the words don’t trip easily off the tongue, they tumble, they get tangled up.

The strain of folk horror running through the writing is initially intriguing. The world of the play is governed by magic, the harvest has been a poor one and a price must be paid. There are nods to The Wicker Man, and, at one point, even Carrie.

Richard Hudson’s set, a great circle of dirt, richly lit by Paule Constable, emphasises the centrality of the land to their lives. 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.

The running time has been slashed in previews and there’s a lack of precision to Jeremy Herrin’s production and a lack of momentum. For something so rammed with incident and plot, it has tendency to meander and is unforgivably dull in places. While Duff is her usual magnetic self and great at keeping things moving, the effort of doing so is often written on her face.

In a time when the corporatisation of public space continues apace, it’s easy to see why Common came to be. Moore has written a play of linguistic and dramatic ambition with a complex, kick-ass female character at its heart. But, despite a couple of wonderful what-the-fuck moments too often it’s impenetrable, muddled and muddy.

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The National’s linguistically ambitious but frustratingly impenetrable and frequently bamboozling new history play