Olivier Theatre, National Theatre
6 June 2017
At the heart of DC Moore’s new play Common is Mary – a woman who is quite literally an unstoppable force of nature. Presumed dead, she returns to a small rural community at the start of the 19th century to exact revenge, carry off the love of her life and generally cause mischief. Sensual and dangerous, she also functions on a mythic level, representing the forces of progress and industrialisation that will one day destroy the country folk’s old pagan ways. Her arrival coincides with enclosure, when capitalist landowners were fencing off common land, which poses a threat to the rural community and the farmers’ livelihoods.
Common plays around with these themes and ideas but, despite great promise, the result is uneven. Speaking Moore’s rich poetic language, the large cast seem a little lost in the epic expansiveness of the story and staging. There are some excellent performances such as Lois Chimimba as young Eggy Tom, who talks to a crow inhabited by his dead father’s spirit. Much-needed comedy comes from Tim McMullan as an urbane land-owning lord and Trevor Fox as his sardonic deputy Heron. John Dagleish and Cush Jumbo throw themselves into the characters of King, the target of Mary’s vengeance, and his sister Laura, the subject of Mary’s love, but they cannot make us care much about what happens to them.
Dressed in red finery against a murky backdrop, Anne-Marie Duff as the manipulative Mary stands out like some kind of creature from Hell, maybe psychic, possibly unliving. Regularly making bawdy asides to the audience, she craves attention and loves to shock but Duff looks uneasy in this role despite her efforts to charm.
Trimmed down by about 30 minutes since previews began, the show has gained momentum in time for press night although it still feels like it needs more work. Directed by Headlong’s artistic director Jeremy Herrin, it offers some great theatrical moments and surprises, including instances of real horror and the air of menace created by the cast swarming the large stage in pagan harvest costumes. Against a muddy set designed by Richard Hudson, Paule Constable’s lighting, Ian Dickinson’s sound design and Stephen Warbeck’s music add to the brooding atmosphere. But, despite the impressive staging and some interesting ideas, the play never fully comes to life.
Running to August 5, 2017