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.

HERE’S WHY I THINK EVERYONE WHO GAVE COMMON A ONE STAR REVIEW IS TALKING BOLLOCKS.

*

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.

 


* “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.”

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