Review: Common, National Theatre ‘Two Plays in One’


So, this is interesting… I didn’t hate Common. In fact, until the interval I was really enjoying it. Anne-Marie Duff was terrific, the writing was bitingly funny, and there was a curious darkness to the piece – something a little off-kilter. But then it took a sudden turn leftfield. More on that in a minute, but the angle that I want to come from here is that this play has had a tough ride, and I think far tougher than is probably fair.

As many of you will know, Common has had a painful birth. It was being hammered in previews via social media with complaints about length, language and obscurity, causing many to leave at the interval. From what I understand, the creatives undertook a hell of a lot of remedial work – cutting great swathes from the text and making edits – but it seems with only limited success as it took a lot of bruises on Press Night too, and is now widely written off as a ‘dud.’

Is it terrible? Christ, no. I’ve seen far worse at the NT (hello, Evening at the Talk House). But more than this, though Common isn’t without its issues, I cannot possibly agree with some of the sweeping condescension its received. Perhaps much has changed even since Press Night. But also because I think certain decisions let it down.

So, let’s discuss them now!

Right, now first out the gate ****THIS MIGHT GET A BIT SPOILER-Y**** I’m going to try not to give too much away but the reason why I’ve decided to peel a little closer to the reveal than ever before (I’ve never done spoiler warnings before) is because a smoke and mirrors act has been employed by this show and I want to talk about the issues that brings.

And, tbh, I feel I’ve only a thin chance in persuading you to see Common anyway – it’s been so heavily marked down elsewhere – so let’s start being honest about the issues here.

It’s nineteenth-century England and we’re in an anonymous village in the countryside. But its once-fertile common lands have been reduced to ash. The earth in the ground cannot sustain a crop and the villagers are panicked, both from the loss of their livelihood, but also from the threat from the landed elite who want to use the opportunity these issues have brought to grab these common lands for their vast private estates, and push the impoverished labourers towards the cities, already suffocating in smoke, to become cannon fodder for the belching factories and their industrial revolution.

And wading into this town that’s already on edge comes Mary (Anne-Marie Duff), a rogue, a thief and a liar, who is returning home after many years away to settle some very old scores. Only she finds that the town she left so many years ago is now gripped with fear and superstition.

Right. That’s the set-up, yes? That’s kind of in line with what we see on the posters, what we have read on the website etc etc., right? And as I watched the first few scenes play out, I was thinking, OK, so this is about change. This is about fear of change, how we react to change – how some dread it and others revel in it. And that Mary was going to be a literal agent of change in this, a catalyst, in period of tumultuous social, economic, and political change in this country.

That’s what I thought.

But here’s the thing…. THAT IS ABSOLUTELY NOT WHAT THIS PLAY IS ABOUT! Not even close. We are being deliberately deceived. We are being set up.

For Mary is so much more than what she seems. So, so, much more. I am so tempted to just SCREAM it out. But I will try to resist. But my concerns are always with this kind of trick – why are you doing this? What’s the point?

So, anyway, Mary swaggers into town dressed in her blood red finery. Much like Richard III, she constantly breaks the fourth-wall, reeling us in as her accomplices and co-conspirators in her quest to reunite with the woman she loved, and to take revenge on the woman’s brother and all those others who split them apart.

But much like Richard III, we find ourselves in the pockets of the villain of the piece, not the hero. It soon becomes clear that there is little compassion in Mary. She is cruel, manipulative and, well, there’s something that doesn’t ring true about her stories and her tales of life since she left town. Something isn’t quite fitting here.

But, nevertheless, we don’t have time to dwell on these oddities as the dialogue is quick-witted and snappy. I don’t know how much work has been done post-Press Night but I had no problems with obscurity at all. It’s perfectly understandable. And I’d heard all this stuff about how it was ‘cunt’ this, ‘fuck’ that – that the swearing was overwhelming to the point of being dulling. Didn’t find that at all either. (Though not sure if that reflects more on me, rather than the show). But no, it was all going great.

The show was zipping along. Mary makes her allies and outlines her foes, manipulating a young boy, the town orphan, who keeps a talking crow to run secret messages and errands for her around town, as she ingratiates herself with unsuspecting townsfolk through pretending to be a clairvoyant. Only this is a town that doesn’t welcome strangers – in fact, many see them as reasons their land could be poisoned.

And so, just as we approach the interval, we start seeing a surge of Wicker Man-style violence as the villagers turn on those they see as harbingers of doom, people to be sacrificed to appease the gods to bring back fertility to their toxic earth. Where was that on the poster, I thought! Then, right at the interval, there’s a shocking act where you just think, WHAT??! Now where the fuck do we go from here?

So, it’s about this point, as the lights come up for our twenty-minute break, that you think, wait a second… this isn’t a play about land reform. Now, one – what a fucking relief, I suppose; but, two – what the hell is this play about then? Because, (I’m trying not to spell it out here!) you can’t even say this play examines human nature, or change, which is what I first thought. Or responsibility.

This is a play where the occult suddenly takes centre stage. This is a story where dark forces are at work, interfering in the acts between God and man. Now, where the hell was that in the marketing? (Actually, you could argue it is there, but it is too damn subtle).

So, for me, we have a promotion issue straight out the gate. This play is not what it is being marketed as. Not even close. It’s miles out. This isn’t a dry examination of class warfare or Industrial Revolution England. In fact, all of that is largely irrelevant. This is a very dark story on other-worldliness, on fear and hysteria.

So, why the deliberate confusion? Why be so coy and obscure about this? There is no benefit to this whatsoever. I don’t think writer, DC Moore, is being clever here; in fact, it’s rather patronising to the audience to try and play us like this. And, let’s be frank, you’re hardly putting your best marketing foot forward when you try and encourage audiences to come see a play on land reform. But tell them it’s about violence. Tell them it’s about fear and darkness… Well, now you’re interested, aren’t you?

So, yes, we’ve an advertising issue. But there’s also an execution one as these two stories have not been weaved together well enough to justify this attempt to hoodwink audiences. It’s too clunky. Neither story has been sufficiently well developed. I feel DC Moore needed more time to make this work. Or, frankly, to drop the common land/Industrial Revolution era set-up altogether.

But, it must be said, such was the shock of the sudden lurch that for the most of the second half, I was confused. My mind was racing to piece the jigsaw together, to try to keep up and understand what was unfolding in front of me. In fact, it was only as I was sitting on the train home afterwards that it finally hit me – OH MY GOD! SO THAT’S WHY SHE’S WEARING RED! SO THAT’S WHY THERE ARE TALKING CROWS!

I’m giving it away now, aren’t I? But I liked the darkness, but it just came out of nowhere. It’s too jarring, and it rather undermines the story that is initially set out. We get no conclusion to the land reform plotline, the themes of change and human nature are not satisfactorily addressed, and Mary’s own character arc… Well, I think it bewildered too many. If DC Moore was so attracted to the darkness here then fine, go with it. But don’t try to make this a play about something else. Pick your story and commit to it.

Jeremy Herrin, as always, brings a lot of style and energy with his direction. The visuals are terrific. Rather than meet the scale of the auditorium with a hugely decadent visual, he has embraced a desolate vision of this countryside. The stage is a thick layer of dirt – the common land where nothing will grow. No tree, no blade of grass. It’s bleak and it’s impressive.

And he’s terrific with group scenes, particularly the more violent ones, capturing an energy which sees the actors gathering and flowing like a squall.

But though JH does a lot, the Olivier does bring its challenges – mostly because many of the scenes are often tiny with just Mary alone on stage confiding her schemes to the audience (or should that be, fooling us with one of her lies?)

Either way, I think Common is on the wrong stage. This play is crying out for a more intimate arena. Maybe even the Dorfman rather than the Lyttleton. Not only could the stark visuals be retained, but more would be gained for AMD and her interaction with the audience. Her cheeky asides work well for the first ten rows of the Stalls, but are completely lost to those up in the Circle.

I’m not in-the-know enough to understand why Angels in America wasn’t put on in the Olivier. Demand alone should have pushed that, I would have thought. But the result is, Common was dealt a tough hand by being given the Olivier. It doesn’t help it.

I feel like I’m back in a criticising circle. That’s not what I’m trying to do here. I just feel this show wasn’t given, and didn’t give itself, the best shot. It belongs in a smaller theatre and there needed to be a strong conversation about which story DC Moore wanted to tell.

With regards to the latter, about what this play is about, if the decision had been made to focus on the darker storyline, making it more transparent, bringing this out in promotion and weaving it in more explicitly into the earlier scenes, we would have a show with greater focus and a more appropriate audience. And it may well have been a very exciting show indeed.

Perhaps the creatives will argue that the remedial work took a lot of this explanation and necessary build-up out. Though I would probably argue that we are still trying to tell two different stories in one play. As it is, by trying to weave together two stories that bear little correlation, whilst also fooling the audience, too much is lost. And that’s a real shame. There’s a cracking play in here somewhere, but it struggles to clearly define itself.

National Theatre, London, to August 5, 2017
Tickets from £15.

All production images by Johan Persson.

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