Common at the National TheatreCultureTheatre
Even before opening, Common had caused a minor controversy online. Scathing comments and reports of mass walkouts at the interval led to a cancelled preview and the substantial trimming of a three-hour running time. Coming out the other side it’s hard to understand some of the vitriol – it’s arguably not the worst major production on in London (and perhaps not the worst currently playing at the Olivier). There are, however, questions to be asked about why the National Theatre thought this was stage-worthy.
Long assumed dead Mary (Anne-Marie Duff) – who may or may not have supernatural powers – returns to her birth place in search of lost love Laura (Cush Jumbo). Meanwhile the locals are being threatened by enclosure, the process by which small landholdings are roped together to create one single-owner farm. There’s also some vague chat about “the old ways”. And a war between rich and poor. Oh, and a talking crow.
If this description sounds garbled then it’s a pretty good reflection of how it feels to watch the play. The thing is, that level of see what sticks-ness can work. After all, just look at Angels in America next door, a play that sounds just as incomprehensible on paper, but that soars because of its overreaching ambition. What Common really needs is a centre of gravity, something Duff’s rather uncharismatic Mary fails to provide. There is actually the seed of a good play lurking in among all the nonsense. Considering the current political and social climate, the transfer of common use land to one wealthy owner is thematically fertile ground to explore. Yet, like most elements of his play, Moore leaves the idea under-farmed.
The playwright appears to be aiming for a mixture of earthy grandeur and irreverence but ends up with a series of wordy, pompous dialogues and sporadically inventive vulgarity. He also has Mary repeatedly break the fourth wall, which, given most jokes barely elicit a murmur, only has the effect of highlighting how uninterested most of the audience is in the material.
Like Salome – the National’s other Olivier-stinker – Common does produce a few striking images. Though director Jeremy Herrin is clearly indebted to The Wicker Man and the films of Ben Wheatley, the moments of rural horror, with the cast decked out in the animal masks of some harvest cult, briefly bring the play to life. The second act also opens with perhaps the one scene to fully lean into the ridiculousness of what’s going on. In the end, however, Common is like a bad Nick Cave demo: flashes of gore and devilry, but seriously lacking a chorus.
Common is at the National Theatre from 30th May until 5th August 2017, for further information or to book visit here.