Common @ National Theatre: …as muck?

First off, yes, I was rooting for Common. There’s very little that saddens me more than a half-empty theatre so I try to be an advocate for everything – but that’s not always possible. Some plays are just a bit shit; it’s not necessarily anyone’s fault, just a matter of taste. I’m very aware that unlike a critic I’m under no obligation to ‘review’ what I see. I’m also aware that theatre is more subject to change than most art; when people complain that critics “must have seen a different show to the one I saw,” they’re probably exactly right. No show is the same two nights running.

I also know that Common, DC Moore’s new play in the National’s Olivier, has changed massively since its first preview. The struggles involved with staging a new play (that I can only imagine) suddenly became public. 45 minutes have been cut from the running time. All of this seems fair everyoneisallowedanopinion blah blah waffle waffle bleh.

My problem is this: the things concerning Common that were dismissed – and I use that word deliberately – by the critics, are seemingly still intact. And I don’t think they’re dismissible, not by any means.



The thing that has been praised about this production, I think without exception, is Anne-Marie Duff as Mary, our heroine, who swears more than I do. She walks on stage, a striking figure in red and commands the audience with the most creative use of swearing I can recall seeing on a stage. I was banking every single one of her insults for future use. Mary is part-real, part-fiction; part-liar, part-seer – a multitude of flaws and contradictions. She is coarse and crude and crass and I LOVED her. You can see how much fun Duff is having, relishing being raunchy and provocative. It’s a great part, and she does a great job. And yes, I would see her in anything.

There’s strong acting support from Cush Jumbo as Laura, a supporting role; one painted in broad strokes but one she still manages to inhabit. Lois Chimimba is solid as Eggy Tom/Young Hannah, and yes, there’s a bloody puppet crow. And has John Dagleish put it in his contract that the set for any play he’s involved in must be a circle of dirt?

Jeremy Herrin’s production makes little attempt to put the physical village on stage; things are suggested with stiles and posts and the occasional table. Instead, the stage is filled with people, plenty of supernumeraries representing the landscape and the people that populate it. There are sequences where they trudge across the stage, carrying saplings, swiping the thin air with scythes, with nothing to harvest. The scythes become not instruments of agriculture, but blades destined for another use. This is a drama with people at the centre (and not just because the Travelex budget pushes it in this direction.)

The floor of the Olivier stage is a layer of thin, ruined earth, blackened and sharp. Nothing could possibly grow here; it seems toxic, throwing up whatever is attempted to be hidden within. It’s blackened and hard and dusty. This is rural England, but hardly William Blake’s “green and pleasant land.” It is a land exhausted by centuries of labour by peasants; land about to be taken away from them. The world of the play is just on the verge of capitalism, just on the verge of chaos; revolutions are flaring up across Europe and threaten to scorch this earth too.


The production then, is far from terrible. But that wouldn’t matter if the text propping it up was shite.

GOOD NEWS. IT’S NOT SHITE. And I intend to make the case that COMMON IS A REALLY GOOD PLAY.

“But w-w-w-wait! I don’t know what happened!?”*

Alright. Common is about Mary, a woman who has been in London (or hell) for a long time, presumed dead by her lover (and also her adopted sister) Laura, and the rest of the community. She returns to the land as it is being inclosed under the acts of inclosure in the early 19th century. She expects to rekindle her romance with Laura, but cannot, and instead she is thrown into the violent resistance that surrounds the inclosure of the common land, led by Mary’s adopted brother, King.

There. That’s the plot of the first act. I really fail to see what was so hard to understand. I’d explain the second but I’d rather not spoil it.

“Ah!” I hear you counter; “But the language makes it impossible to follow what’s going on!”†

BULLSHIT. The language is by no means impenetrable. Yes, it forces you to *gasp* concentrate, but I found myself treating it like Shakespeare. I was paying far more attention to the rhythm and emphasis than I was to the words themselves, but the words themselves were fecking hilarious. And furthermore, the actors are more than capable of making even the obscure and dense parts intelligible. What Moore seems to do is layer the words on top of each other; where most playwrights would cut, he adds not adjectives but synonyms. The characters talk 50 different ways at once, something I did not find to be a flaw, but a totally original use of language in a dramatic context.

“What was with all that Wicker Man shit!?”‡

I have a feeling that my enjoyment of Common has a lot to do with my love of horror films, by which I mean, I looked at Common as a piece of folk horror. Horror as a genre has been rarely represented on stage, which is no surprise to me as it is barely taken seriously in film, let alone in “high culture,” whatever the hell that is. I mean, there’s the Woman in Black (which I have no intention of seeing, sorry ‘bout it) and there’s the work of Sarah Kane… but it’s never really perceived as horror. Common is folk horror in its true sense; playing on an English fascination with the green and pleasant land and inverting it.

Folk horror emerged in the late 60s, as attitudes towards sexuality loosened, and filmmakers tried to go beyond the gothic of the Hammer 50s. More could be shown, sex and violence, but instead of approaching modernity, they went backwards into history. Drawing on rural ritual and pagan imagery, these films were not nearly as camp, and were dark and nihilistic. The Wicker Man is probably the most widely known (hence its appearance as a reference point in several reviews) but is part of a whole sub-genre including Blood on Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General. Common strikes me as part of this tradition, albeit set a little later. The ground here is home only to bodies – and even those it spits up. Holes gape in the ground like mouths, waiting to swallow people whole. There’s gore too, but not slasher-levels by any means; folk horror doesn’t rely on gore but on subversion. The characters dress in nature’s armour and chant and ritualise. Pre-Christian traditions in what we generally consider to be a Christian age.

This world is violent; people die horribly, and people kill brutally. There’s a linking of primal desires; sex and blood, revenge and resistance. Once a community has had its common ground stripped away – in both a literal and metaphorical sense – it disintegrates, the family collapses, social norms follow. Only those in the upper classes could possibly survive, and even that shouldn’t be taken for granted. Horror doesn’t sit easily in any form; it’s restless and subversive – and is very rarely taken seriously. People relish its flaws for good and bad – but its so rarely taken seriously. I can’t help but feel part of what made Common so criticised is its genre.

Yes, it is nuts. It is totally bonkers. This is no square, perfect little drama like The Ferryman. It’s rich and dark and weird and slippery and messy. Things are not tied up neatly in a bow, and I’m glad they’re not. When I say I like messy theatre THIS IS WHAT I MEAN.


When Anne Marie Duff thanked the audience, inaudibly, during the curtain call it was with total sincerity, not as some pandering actor. She seemed genuinely grateful we’d stayed till the end and listened to the story on it’s own terms.

Criticism is great, it’s the only way anyone learns. But dismissal strikes me as downright unfair. Dismissal is a failure of the critic, a complete inability to engage with the art on any level other than the superficial – and that’s what made me angry about the reaction to Common. You don’t have to like it, but there’s no reason to take glee in writing a hatchet job. Common is bold, original, linguistically fascinating, led by a formidable performance AND IT’S A PIECE OF NEW WRITING ON THE BIGGEST PLAYHOUSE STAGE IN LONDON. I massively enjoyed it. I don’t think it’s been treated fairly.


Photo by Johan Persson.


* “The plotting achieves Steven Moffat levels of head-scratching opacity.”

“Moore writes in a mangled, mongrel tongue”

“I felt as if I was watching a folkloric English equivalent of the diabolic Clint Eastwood western High Plains Drifter, perhaps randomly intercut with The Wicker Man.”


Killology @ Royal Court, Upstairs: Fathers, Sons and Fairytales

“In the beginning was Scream

Who begat Blood


Who begat Crow

Screaming for Blood”

– Lineage, Ted Hughes


Killology is a play about how much it sucks to have kids.

I mean, it’s not, but it does suggest that parenting is simply a series of compromises and failures. Cheery stuff. One the one hand, it’s about the complexities of the father/son dynamic, something that – as a son – I certainly feel entangled in. On the other, it’s a morality fable about what is real and what is not – colliding with a sort-of satire on the prevalence of violence in mainstream culture.

Phew. Got that out of the way.


Sometimes a play has you grinning before the lights go down – and as the lights in the Upstairs space of the Royal Court flickered and then then cut completely, I certainly felt that grin spread across my face. It vanished fairly quickly, which seems fair considering the opening speech ends with an announcement of imminent murder.

Gary Owen’s play is a sequence of monologues, delivered by three characters that inhabit the same space but are on different timelines. Occasionally they interact, but the vast majority of the play is direct address. It’s confrontational, confessional even. These monologues become slightly hypnotic, hallucinogenic even, the set itself (mechanical, machine-like, but also wet and organic) seems to bleed into the audience, with a sound design that similarly makes us complicit. It’s also exquisitely lit by Kevin Treacy, the lights carve what could be an austere tangle into something more like a forest’s clearing, light dappled by leaves. Everything is heightened theatrically, but never enough to make you completely doubt it’s ‘real.’

The actors seem to be inhabiting different universes – which I suppose they are. Seán Gleeson’s Alan has had his heart utterly broken and exists somewhere outside rational thought; Richard Mylan’s brilliantly disgusting Paul reminded me slightly too much of some people I’ve met at uni, and also had a slight whiff of the Tarantino about him; and Siôn Daniel Young’s Davey is beautifully observed, his acting is almost invisible.

It does slightly conjure up the work of Sarah Kane – but I’m not sure that’s fair. It’s probably more to do with the idea that violence on the English stage = Sarah Kane, and then amplified by the theatre space shared by both Owen and Kane.

What I’m trying to get at is Killology is far more fairytale than realism. Although – yes – I was disgusted by the thing that happens just before the interval, there was little else that stirred anything other than interest. Because I was interested, but I think there was just huge swathes that I couldn’t take seriously – and, gah, I don’t even mean that. I think the nature of the piece, the form, the content, the line it walks between realism and fairytale, means that you’re always playing a guessing game – and that loosens the tension somewhat. I couldn’t take it ‘seriously’ because I was always interrogating whether what is being said is real or not. The second act has far more of these moments than the first.

There’s also the morals at play; the play seems to suggest that violence in culture begets violence in life – and violence in life begets violence in life. At least in some instances, under specific circumstances. But then why make the physical production so non-specific? In the play Alan suggests that “there is an instinctive revulsion against taking a human life,” and that it can be defeated with the appropriate ‘training.’ It’s a universal trait then? … and then when I carry on down this train of thought I get very confused and conflicted and bleh.


So, Killology. I definitely had a drink and thought a lot about it afterwards, put it that way.


Photo by Mark Douet.

Hamlet @ Harold Pinter Theatre: Twice Seen of Us

I first saw this production of Hamlet back in February, while it was in its previews at the Almeida. I wrote about it here, and it was the first thing I wrote that gained anything like interest. I couldn’t resist the urge to write about it again, but this piece is perhaps inevitably as much in conversation with my initial piece as it is with the production itself. And with me, any excuse to write about Hamlet is a good one.


Seeing things twice is always something of a gamble. Sometimes you don’t want to give an actor the chance to change whatever it was that was so magical about their performance in the first place, sometimes you want to see just how deep they are willing to dive. Sometimes the production is so rich that it necessitates multiple viewings, and sometimes you want to retain the overwhelming impression of something. But there was never any doubt in my mind that I wanted to see Robert Icke’s production of Hamlet with Andrew Scott as the Dane himself if I got the chance. I knew I’d missed so much, and so much would have changed as the run progressed.

The production is so much richer for its 10-weeks-worth of performances since I last saw it. The actors have sunk into their characters to an extent that watching the play feels more like eavesdropping. That is in itself an achievement in moving the play from the intimate Almeida to the West End, although the actors all spoke at a conversational level – they were wearing mics but I’m not sure how much they were amplified to the balconies. I mention that because there is definitely a sense that they have moved the Almeida to the West End, going so far as reconstructing the former’s back wall on the stage of the Harold Pinter. The video feeds are retained – obviously – but instead of brick forming the backdrop, we see glimpses of the yellow-and-blue of the Pinter auditorium. My fringe made an appearance also. It loses something when it does this; it becomes slightly more like a play than a world. I was also aware that on this visit I was a lot closer to the stage than I had been at the Almeida, I could see every glance, every twitch.

And I still know there’s loads I’ve missed.


Anyway, the play.

That first sequence, where the first act runs as one almost-unbroken scene is still a marvel to me. It also changed a lot of my feelings as to the internal relationships of the characters. I was wrong; clearly there is a sexual attraction between Hamlet and Ophelia. They’re so flirty, and Jessica Brown Findlay’s Ophelia is full of life and energy. Ophelia is truly ‘good,’ not in some dated, virtuous way, but you’d want her for a mate. I’d bet she’d be a hoot at parties. I loved watching Ophelia and Laertes trying to make each other laugh during Claudius’ long speech. I loved watching Juliet Stevenson’s Gertrude study every flicker that crosses Hamlet’s face, smiling encouragingly. She clearly loves her son, and her relationship with Claudius is a strong one. She is no opportunist.

And as for Hamlet himself, Scott’s performance seems to have grown in physicality. He’s a fidgety Hamlet; when his leg starts to shake, you know there’s about to be a volcanic outburst. He is – interestingly – less shouty. His anger manifests itself as a constant, simmering rage. He’s also far wittier, with superb comic timing. He’s a funny Hamlet. But far more importantly, he is a Hamlet without any answers. Scott’s gift is in making the verse ring with absolute clarity, he includes the audience on his thoughts with him. The effect of this is not only one of implication, but of a humanising of the character. Hamlet is no genius here, he is no preacher, he’s just trying to understand, and often coming to most awful conclusion, rightly and wrongly. When he asks Ophelia “are you honest?” you can see the desperation etched in Hamlet’s face, and the horror in Ophelia’s.

I also have to write about just how brilliant the characterisations of Gertrude and Ophelia are. Both actresses have to do so much with so little material. How Stevenson manages to craft that arc in Gertrude is stunning to me. We watch her go from a sexualised newlywed, to (un)willing pawn in Claudius’ attempts to get to Hamlet, to someone out of love, willing to not only sacrifice herself, but openly defy her husband politically. But more on that later. I’m also utterly convinced that the story Gertrude tells Laertes, of how Ophelia died, is a complete lie. Not a cruel lie, not one to hide a conspiracy, but one to spare Laertes. I suspect Laertes knew it was a lie too.

As I said, Findlay’s Ophelia is fucking brilliant. It registered with me just how much Hamlet screws up in the “get thee to a nunnery” scene. Ophelia is forced into playing the game by her father and Claudius, but she’s still somewhat on Hamlet’s side. And then Hamlet screws up. “Are you honest?” he asks, and the fury in Ophelia just leaps out – she knows the accusation is not just of sexual honesty but of political honesty. Hamlet believes the world is conspiring against him, and it probably isn’t, not until he throws Ophelia under the bus. And then the ‘mad scene’… in parts it is as though she isn’t mad at all. The way she hands the flowers out, so specifically, clinging on to the daisy (as she did when Hamlet throws the vase of water over her.) I couldn’t help but think Findlay will make a great Lady M one day. (With Scott? At the Almeida? With Icke? Please!?)

I also had a thought about the now-infamous “Now might I do it” bit. Claudius appears to be confessing the murder to Hamlet, at gunpoint. But the scene is lit like the ghost scene, (and we’re led to believe Hamlet imagines the physical manifestation of the ghost) Hamlet in harsh focus, like the ghost of his father. This continues right up until Claudius’ last couplet, when the lights shift, Claudius throws open his arms, his arrogance protecting him from any attempt by Hamlet to kill him. I think that nothing in that scene is ‘real’ until the lights shift. Simply thinking about the geography: if Hamlet was going to his mother’s closet, it makes sense he would pass Claudius in the room before this, and imagined what might occur. But I doubt that’s an original thought and I’m probably wrong. STILL.

Moving swiftly on, I don’t think I clocked last time just how beautiful that last scene is. From Claudius and Gertrude crossing the stage to attend to their respective loyalties, Laertes and Hamlet, to Laertes trying so hard not to using the poisoned foil. And as heart-breaking as Scott (and Luke Thompson’s Laertes, for that matter) is in this scene, the part that really took my breath away was Gertrude’s storyline, which I’m about to describe for my own benefit more than anyone else’s. The way she distances herself from Claudius, to taking the wine, and drinking not just to save her son, but in direct defiance of her husband politically, foiling (sorry) his plan. She pushes away his hand, there is no doubt she knows what she’s about to do, and then as she drinks she interlocks her fingers with Claudius. She still loves him, even as she’s dying as a direct consequence of his actions. Then she turns to Hamlet and smiles at him, and at the same moment it dawns on him what she has done. Hamlet’s smile is weaker. Gertrude sits at the back of the stage shaking slightly, hardly able to watch the proceedings, or look at her husband.

That last image, of Hamlet clawing at Horatio as he dies – a profoundly violent death – is unbearably moving. It’s almost strange to see Hamlet – the daddy of the tragedies – be quite so tragic.

And yes, I noticed the watches this time. (Although the very ending is still unclear to me. Hamlet’s watch is back on the wrist of his father, and this is what stops him joining the golden-lit party? Why? Or has he made his revenge and no longer needs to physically carry his father’s memory with him?)


Long story short, you’ll be hard pressed to find better Shakespeare in London this year. I already want to see it again. “Twice seen of us” is not enough.


Photo by Manuel Harlan.

Anatomy of a Suicide @ Royal Court: Echoes and Echoes and Echoes

I’ve only done it twice, so admittedly it’s a bit of a small sample. But nonetheless I will claim with feigned authority that sitting on the front row for a Katie Mitchell show is a never-less-than-intense experience. With Cleansed, it was tongues. Unfurled, peeled out and sliced. Here, it is a different sort of tongues altogether. Words words words as someone once said.


It is of course totally appropriate that you emerge from Anatomy into the twilight. It’s a profoundly depressing piece of theatre – with a title like that you’d be alarmed if it wasn’t. It charts the legacy of a woman’s decision to kill herself down the subsequent generations – played simultaneously. It’s like a three act play happening all at once.

First off, I am absolutely fascinated by this play. Firstly, just how it looks on the page, and how Alice Birch wrote it in the first place. The sheer bloody technical skill involved in this production starts with the immaculately crafted, musical script. Birch writes the text in three columns, A, B and C. Characters sometimes talk at the same time, but often the effect is like a childlike round. When Birch claims she ‘scored’ the play, this seems absolutely accurate as there is a rhythm to it, supported by Paul Clark’s actual score, an omnipresent, ominous bass.

In the A column, on the left of the page and stage, is Carol, a woman we meet in the 1970s having just slashed her wrists. In a way, Hattie Morahan has the trickiest job in playing her – we know from the off that her character is going to kill herself, but she never makes it feel inevitable. Similarly, Kate O’Flynn – in the B column, centre stage, is as wonderful here as she was in The Glass Menagerie – fills her character with such warmth that it’s not possible to be unmoved by her own demise. Adelle Leonce plays the third daughter, Bonnie, in the C column. It has been said (and I don’t disagree) that she has the least to work with – all her history is being played out by the other actresses – but Leonce plays her character’s loneliness with a conviction that is brilliantly uncomfortable to watch. There’s a scene in the A&E department Bonnie runs. I so wanted her to just smack the other character in the scene, but instead we can see each thought pass over Leonce’s face as she deliberates and considers every option available to her, finally resigning herself to an apology.

Three narratives at once does something a bit strange. Two narratives can be followed at once fairly easily, and admittedly, Birch mostly foregrounds two narratives in each section, allowing the third to be a character by themselves, doing something without talking (lying on the floor, getting her next fix, waiting outside a door with a bottle of wine) so that the story can move on. Whenever the third strand is put into play the piece turns from a form of realism into some sort of staged poem. Words echo across the stage, characters seem to finish each other’s thoughts across time, and ideas, images recur; aquariums, babies, drugs, hospitals.

The set, a room which seems to contain nothing but its exits, with glimpses of a house through the doors, is claustrophobic and damp. The characters are cramped together even as time separates them by decades. The world is not clinical, or even chemical. It seems to be an organic space, dampened and dulled. Only in the final moments does there seem to be enough air in the space.

It’s interesting that one of the ideas of the play seems to be that suicide can be biological, a hereditary gene even, one that Bonnie is moved to eradicate. There’s no suggestion that she wants children, it’s the simple idea that she is capable of transmitting the gene that is abhorrent to her. No doubt people will write about how the play deals with suicide far more delicately and eloquently than I can, but I do think the form of the play prevents it from being a completely depressing experience – it is a funny play in parts, and an awkward one. This is no 4.48 Psychosis with its utterly bleak outlook. We are not allowed to wallow in these women’s plights, nor are we given Ophelia-like mad scenes. It is a completely serious study of suicide, but never exploitative. The title, with its allusions to surgery, seems perfect to me.


This is some of the most technically stunning writing I can recall seeing in the theatre all year, given a production by Katie Mitchell that foregrounds the poetry of the language and the uniformly excellent performances by the three main actresses. Probably the Royal Court fulfilling its mission more totally than any other time I’ve been (in my admittedly limited experience.)





Barely related anecdote:

I bought a new fountain pen recently and because I’m a leftie I’ve had to learn how to write properly again. It’s like being 8 again. Anyway. I was writing some notes when I got home after the play, and got distracted by trying to perfect the writing of a particular word. I wrote this word about thirty times – not kidding – so I could get used to the flow of the words and the ink. Except the word I was practicing on was ‘suicide.’

I wrote ‘suicide’ about thirty times on a single piece of paper. I burned it.


Photo by Stephen Cummiskey.

The Treatment @ Almeida Theatre: Musings on Insolubility

This is a weird one. Consider it the text based rendition of thinking out loud.


At the interval of The Treatment, I was saying how much I was liking it, but that I didn’t really have a clue what was going on.

And then I started to think.

What did I mean? I understood the plot, as in, I understood what was propelling the narrative forward. It’s the story of a woman, Anne, who sells a story to film producers. Except the story is hers. As in, it’s autobiography – which makes it all the worse when the producers choose to merge it with a fictitious story.

The plot is relatively straightforward. There are characters. They’re well-performed by a very solid company (Particularly liked Indira Varma. But when is she not great?) The production never seeks to obscure – in fact, this is the first time I’ve gone to the Almeida and felt like I was watching a play as opposed to some sort of live installation. There was a set. Blackouts. Everything seemed geared towards clarity.

And yet.

There’s something under the skin of The Treatment that is utterly insoluble. I like to think of myself as reasonable articulate, but I haven’t a clue how to talk about it.

It’s in the text, it’s not an addition of this production, clearly. And I’ve never seen or read another Crimp play for comparison. And it’s not like I take notes. So what follows is complete speculation.


The characters are all to some degree narcissists. That may well be true of all people, and it may be particularly heightened in people in media, but everyone is thoroughly unlikable. The traditional structure of the piece and simplicity in the production jars with the repellent nature of the characters; you should be able to connect with even awful characters in this form, right?

Maybe there’s something in there about abuse. During the talkback, Aisling Loftus mentioned that she had been thinking about the idea of abuse. Apparently, she read an article about an aid convoy tasked with saving children destined for the sex trade, and to convince them that they should go with the aid workers, they essentially had to traumatise them. There was one convoy that refused to traumatise the children, feeling it was somehow worse. There’s a sense in the play that we’re watching someone be horribly abused, but we’re not quite sure how? Or who is the abuser perhaps? A lack of a moral centre opens the door to chaos.

Maybe the lighting just made me feel a bit queasy.

Maybe it’s all the allusions to high tragedy, the sense that everything is an extension of reality, and can be further extended into literary and dramatic. Perhaps the deep well of ambiguity underneath the text draws more focus to the simplicity of the plot, heightening it into some riff on a classical tragedy.

Maybe there’s actually nothing to understand. Maybe the production was just opaque – but I don’t believe that. Maybe I went in thinking “I need to really think about this one” to such an extent that I’ve overthought it and now have lost grip on reality altogether.


But more interestingly, is it possibly to like something that you don’t understand?

My instinct is to say “why would you? If you don’t understand something how can you know you like it?”

My second thought is, “sure! If your gut likes it, then great! People listen to lyrics in a foreign language at the opera house and they like it (or do they just pretend to?) right?!”

I thought about Hamlet. I don’t understand Hamlet. I have an understanding of Hamlet. David Hare once suggested that maybe it is insolubility that maybe makes plays great. I have a similar thing with Angels in America*, I have an understanding of it, but I wouldn’t dream of saying I understand it. Because that suggests that I’ve solved it somehow – and drama isn’t meant to be solved, because that makes it sound like a maths question with one answer. Clearly, drama doesn’t.

I’m fine – I think – with not understanding something. I’m less fine with not knowing why I don’t understand it.

Quite probably, that’s the point.


These are some thoughts I had. They’re not finished. They’re barely coherent. But I had them!



*lmao you thought I’d get through a blog without mentioning it hahaha not gonna happen.
Photo by Marc Brenner.