I've been living abroad for a year and a half and have felt very unplugged from British theatre. Indeed, after we had our first baby a year ago, I've felt pretty unplugged from all theatre. But we got back on Monday and tonight I saw my first theatre show for some months: Common by D C Moore.
Now, don't get me wrong: I wasn't so unplugged that I'd heard nothing about the furore attached to this production. I'd heard there were some terrible reviews, rumours of walkouts, cancelled previews, last-minute major surgery on the play and the production, a small firestorm of user comments on Time Out. But I didn't really engage too much with that. I didn't read any of the reviews. I couldn't actually find the user comments when I briefly tried to look, and it's not as if cancelled previews are unprecedented at the National. That's part of what previews are for.
So I went in kind of fresh, maybe with a small warning bell that this might be a tough evening. But what can I tell you, dear reader? I don't know if the production's just grown into its own skin or the detractors are all dimwits, but Common is a fantastic play, given a roaring and thrilling production by Jeremy Herrin.
What's it about? Oh Jesus, don't ask me. Loosely, we're in the early nineteenth century and Mary has returned to the rural common lands where she grew up. She is seeking the girl she loved before faking her own death and fleeing. But changes are afoot; specifically, the enclosure movement is going full throttle - the common land is being privatised. This is creating considerable tension both between the peasantry and the newly-landed gentry but also between different peasant factions: the English and Irish, protestants and catholics. Mary is blessed with a gift for mind-reading (probably) and for mischief (certainly) and she starts by twisting the locals around her finger. But she stirs up more tension than is good for her because her lover rejects her and the peasantry, in a strange rural ceremony, bury her alive. She survives this, miraculously, and is brought into the house of the local Lord, with whom she forms an unlikely alliance. She confronts her lover again and they seem to kill each other, though, again, Mary survives and now rules the manor house. She is on top and it seems her mixture of mischief and cruelty will be the making of our world too.
If that seems a little strange, well that's because it is. It's a very strange play, full of wickedly perverse ideas and images: a dead dog, a dead crow carrying the soul of a dead father, a countryside rite, endless reaping and hoeing, sapphic passions, incestuous passions, several deaths and rebirths, and always, everywhere the land, the land. The Olivier stage is covered in earth and we feel the failing of the harvest throughout. It's (literally) earthy and this anchors the writing. It's a production that could inflame your hay fever. In fact it did inflame my hay fever.
D C Moore has created a new theatrical language for this play. It's not trying exactly to represent historical period, but rather to give a sense of a whole different world. The language is coarse and poetic, funny and visceral. It's a staggering achievement and it's remarkably sustained the whole way through. Just listen to this lovely stuff:
The Cock Inn. I know madam, I know. A gentleman's inn at the far-roughest edge of this wideParish, that no gentleman is ever in, unless it's all changes these allyears since. But go we must: Destiny demands it. No, I do. And my quest. Oh yes you don't know yet my Name or Intent. You'll learn both, in the soonbloody mists of time. Just mean later, madam. In a bit. But do remember, please: rest not your faith on a single syllable I heretell. Unless you cannot resist me, which I'll allunderstand. You are not, as I have been all too-long: alone.
That mixture of music hall, of neologism, of dirty joke and tugging emotion, the storytelling and the world-building, but all of it totally theatrical. (Say it out loud if you don't believe me. It's language that moves the air - and in fact I think that's a phrase from the play.) I think the critics who have slagged this off can have no idea how bloody difficult it is to create a style like this and sustain it without it turning into self-indulgent word-mush. This play is full-throated and theatrical and funny (god it's funny).
What's it about? I'll be honest, only just got home, haven't had time to process it really, I might have a better idea in a week or so. But I like that. There are puzzles in the play: what Mary's real 'Intent' is. She starts absolutely as our heroine and guide, but as it goes on she seems less and less reliable and more and more sinister. What we are to do with that complexity is part of the fun of watching this play. It reminded me a lot of Howard Barker in the 1980s: those scenes where characters that we have come to like do something unconscionably vile to shake off any affection and make us ask hard questions about how easily we take sides, the clichéd barbarism of our morality. I also liked the way the play seems to be about the enclosures (and it is, a bit) but it's much more complex and epic and it shows huge sweeps of characters and the effects of not just putting up a few fences but the entire mindset that was changing right through the eighteenth century. It utterly resists the urge to be narrow.
I mentioned Barker and actually the play really took me back to that wave of plays from the early seventies to the mid-eighties, those epic historical plays that mix poetry and dirt, politics and laughter. Particularly those plays with a kind of rural element to them that seem to draw something from that earth that is somehow not wholly rational to make the language dance. I'm thinking of Storey's Cromwell, Bond's Bingo or The Fool, Barnes's Red Noses, Brenton's The Romans in Britain, Churchill's Fen, Barker's Victory or The Castle, Robert Holman's Other Worlds, almost anything by David Rudkin. It's not like the more recent rural plays like Stuart Paterson's King of the Fields, Richard Bean's Harvest, or Jez Butterworth's Night Heron, The Winterling or Jerusalem. Paterson and Bean's plays don't have quite the same magic; Butterworth's have the magic but not the scale. These latter plays are partly about a domesticated countryside, seen cautiously, at one remove. This just goes for it. I've not seen a play go for it like this for a long time.
The cast is wonderful. Cush Jumbo (the ex-lover) is, as always, magnetic, somehow both elegant and ferocious. I absolutely adored Lois Chimimba as Eggy Tom, a lad who carries his father's soul in a crow around with him, and enjoyably seems sometimes to see us watching the play (who then seems to be reincarnated as a chamber maid with aspirations). Tim McMullan is funny and sinister, scary and pitiful as the syphilitic English Lord. Brian Doherty, Trevor Fox and John Dalgleish are superb as various members of the warring factions. But Anne-Marie Duff, oh dear God, this is such a fierce, funny, sexy, scary performance. She plays it like Shakespeare in a way, in the sense that she's putting a whole world on stage and doing so with delicacy and poetry, but it's completely lived and present. Glenda Jackson once said that Howard Barker's plays had 'writing you can taste in the mouth'. That's what this is and the joy is seeing Anne-Marie Duff dancing with it. The production is pretty great and I'd like to single out Paule Constable's lighting, which is just breathtaking in the use of dramatic side lighting, the occasional flashes of colour, and the versatile use of the cyc so that characters are sometimes reduced to shadow puppets or multiplied spectrally in shadow.
No it's not perfect. What ever is? There are some things that maybe don't quite mesh. Most difficult is the second half. Looking quickly at the published text, it looks as though there have been some pretty savage cuts inflicted on the second half. And I can see why; there's a certain level of complication that repeats the rhythmic patterns of the first half which would seem to slow the whole thing down: we want to get to some kind of moment of clarity or of striking climactic complexity and the play is probably a bit long. But, cutting for pace, they've disrupted the internal rhythm of several scenes, and occasionally I felt we were watching a kind of 'highlights' version of the second half, so quickly was plot spilling out over the stage. This tension between pace and rhythm is always there; it's a little bit a tension between art and entertainment and a bit of that tension is a good thing. Here it feels like pace won out but I'd have liked more faith in the rhythm.
And the production,. while good, feels oddly reserved about the Olivier. In particular, I sometimes kept wanting to pull the action a foot or two nearer us. The actors hugged the middle and rear of the stage a little. I wondered if this was directorial - Duff being the only one permitted far downstage because it gives her that privileged access to us. Maybe, maybe not. I think it would be wrong anyway, just Anne-Marie Duff's turn of the head and that cheeky crooked smile is another to single her out for us.
But these are quibbles. Common is great. Please give it a go.