'Common': Theater Review
Anne-Marie Duff and Cush Jumbo play 19th-century lovers caught up in the fight for land during the Industrial Revolution.
It’s easy to see Brechtian ambition in the mechanics of Common, D.C. Moore’s new play at the National, set during Britain’s Industrial Revolution. Yet it's far harder to gauge what the work is actually getting at. A production that could speak volumes ultimately feels as barren as the drought-ridden land over which its characters battle.
Moore casts a caustic eye over a controversial aspect of so-called progress at the turn of the 19th century, as enclosure laws effectively took the "common land" away from the peasants who had worked it for centuries. It was an early form of privatization, you might say, which has contemporary parallels in a country hanging onto its welfare state by its fingertips. But the play's narrative thrust is so muddled and unconvincing — a brew of politics, romantic melodrama, comedy and the supernatural, all centered on a wholly problematic protagonist — that instead of political frisson, there's merely puzzlement.
Anne-Marie Duff is Mary, who has returned to her rural home after a long exile in London, where she survived as a prostitute, albeit by her own account, a wily one. Striking up an immediate rapport with the audience, she declares that "If I were a man, you'd call me rogue." Instead, she offers some crude gender-specific alternatives, adding that she is a "moral-vacant product" of the capital, which is painted throughout the play as a kind of Sodom and Gomorrah. She talks of the "dark hour," though at first her intentions are unclear. She's an agent provocateur by nature, but has she come to save her community, or benefit from its misery?
Mary certainly causes a stir amongst the village laborers, who don’t recognize her in her scarlet city garb, but are seduced by her claims to be able to read their pasts and predict their futures.
When her purpose is revealed, it's an enormous let-down. Mary merely wants to reclaim her youthful love with Laura (Cush Jumbo), the reason she was thrown out of town in the first place, by Laura's incestuously minded brother. But Laura is much more tied to her community and the land than Mary ever was, and she has conditions on the resumption of their affair. And so the scallywag has no choice but to get involved in the peasant rebellion against enclosure.
The epic-theater concept is evident from the get-go, in the spare staging — the Olivier's large stage covered in dry earth, the village represented by a tiny cutout in the corner, paper crows hanging above — the large ensemble; the breaking of the fourth wall; the fact that one actress, the likable Lois Chimimba, plays different characters in each half, with Duff’s Mary actually confusing the two. And as the cynical, self-interested Mary plays on the local tensions, always for her own purposes, there are echoes of Mother Courage.
You might even say that the speaking crow that opens the second half is Brechtian, though it feels more like an easy laugh. And if there’s no resonance in the play, it may be because Moore is trying too hard. It seems as though the whole of the British Isles is represented in this one village. The language is at turns poetic, fruity and foul, yet with diminishing returns in its richness — Mary really needs to speak less, for example. The possibility that she may be a psychic is one of a few notions that Moore introduces and then drops. And her machinations go every which way without always making sense: when she becomes a woman scorned, the historical setting becomes redundant; when she joins forces with the local Lord and landowner, it almost feels as though she's about to enter a Restoration comedy.
Director Jeremy Herrin (People, Places & Things) and designer Richard Hudson present a convincing and often arresting visual spectacle — from the opening harvest festival to a viscerally violent, ritualistic murder. And there are strong supporting turns, including Jumbo's earthy, passionate Laura, Tim McMullan's weak and venal aristocrat and Chimimba's cheerily dimwitted "crow scarer."
But the chief weakness is front and center: Mary. Despite the self-regarding and endless chatter, she's too ill-defined, her motivations too fluid, and Duff plays her too dryly. Though she doesn't need to be sympathetic, she does need to be far more charismatic.
Venue: National Theatre, London
Cast: Anne-Marie Duff, Cush Jumbo, John Dagleish, Tim McMullan, Lois Chimimba, Trevor Fox, Brian Doherty, Ian-Lloyd Anderson
Director: Jeremy Herrin
Playwright: DC Moore
Set and costume designer: Richard Hudson
Lighting designer: Paule Constable
Music: Stephen Warbeck
Sound designer: Ian Dickinson
Dance: Sian Williams
Puppetry: Laura Cubitt
Presented by: The National Theatre, Headlong