Common, DC Moore’s new play, is the type of work that the Olivier stage of the National Theatre is made to handle. The play is about the enclosure of fields by aristocrats at the beginning of the nineteenth century, condemning villagers to dire poverty and worse. One expects to see a dramatization of a significant issue in English history told through the lives of “real” people.
When the lights go on we see the huge Olivier stage covered with dirt representing the English countryside. A number of villagers appear, their heads covered and carrying farm implements. These are the people who will be affected by enclosure and will fight against the barbarism of the landed nobility.
Anne-Marie Duff as Mary and Ian-Lloyd Anderson as Connor in Common. Photograph: Johan Persson
Mary (Anne-Marie Duff), a well-dressed and clearly upper class lady appears and addresses the audience. Mary is returning to the countryside in search of her lover Laura (Cush Jumbo). Laura’s brother King (John Dagleish) drove Mary away many years ago because of her relationship with his sister. Drove away is a euphemism. He beat her close to death and left her for dead after throwing her in a river. King’s relationship with his sister is incestuous.
We meet some Irish workers and the Lord of the Manor (Tim McMullan) who wants to fence off his lands. Then things start to get murky. We saw the beginning but where is the middle that will lead us to the end and the telling of an epic story of personal and historical dimensions? In other words, what the hell is going on?
Actually a number of things are going on. We have a talking crow, the slaughter of animals, someone’s guts are torn out, and another person’s heart is ripped out of his chest. Mary is very interesting as a former prostitute, soothsayer, manipulator and quite a lady. She has the staying power of a Rasputin when it comes to attempts to snuff her. Give full marks to Duff.
The plot trudges along as our interest and attention span wane. The stage has many trap doors that are put to good use but the historic vista and the compelling personal stories are lost or buried.
Anne-Marie Duff and Cush Jumbo in Common at the National Theatre. Photograph: Johan Persson
Moore’s language helps greatly in engendering incomprehension and somnolence. He is enamored of inverted phrases, bizarre sentence construction and liberal use of hyphenated words. He may be striving for poetic prose or some other effect but all I got as I strained to follow what the hell was going on was pretentious drivel.
Moore and director Jeremy Herrin had all the facilities and budget of the National. There were some forty people on the stage including musicians. In addition to the usual behind-the-scenes artists, there were people responsible for movement, dance, puppetry and fights. Rather than descend to the profane language that Moore serves so liberally, I will settle for an overused aphorism based on the slaughtered pig of the opening scene: you can’t make a silk play out of a swine’s ear.
Common by DC Moore opened on June 6, 2017 and continues in repertory at the Olivier Stage, National Theatre, South Bank, London, England. www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.