FringeReview UK 2017
Anne-Marie Duff leads in D C Moore’s period play Common at the National Theatre’s Oliver. A set depicting fennish earth with sudden pits designed by Richard Hudson deploys the revolve sparingly. Paule Constable’s low-gold lighting strikes exactly like Millet’s Gleaners. Jeremy Herrin’s darkly glittering direction conjures a quiet menace of mass rituals, with sympathetic thuds from Stephen Warbeck’s bass-thwacking score.
Baggy monsters bestride the National’s Olivier this season, like Yael Farber’s Salomé. We should be grateful. Not least because risk-taking extends to baggy language. Whereas Salomé deployed a magma of late Yeats and the Song of Solomon, D C Moore’s Common set in 1809 twists Blakean ampersands with inversions and Germanic compounds. Nouns shunt into adjectives, get frogmarched to the verb camp.
These do not a poetics necessarily make, and can stumble; but wait. It’s language cannily gnarled in a collision of cultures as landed land-grabbers of Enclosure expel the last gleaners from common land. Common dramatically completes an unplanned triptych from the 1970s: Edward Bond’s resonant Bingo about Shakespeare and enclosure around 1616, and Caryl Churchill’s masterly Light Shining in Buckinghamshire revived at the Lyttelton in 2015, bestriding the British revolution of 1647-49. Indeed a Churchillian wraith haunts this aspirational epic: protagonist Anne-Marie Duff ‘now home oncemore as Tragedy beckons loud.’
For a wordy play’s there’s much painting. In Wicker Man garb – out of a proto-surreal Richard Dadd – villagers torch onto Richard Hudson’s fennish earth set with a mackerel-skied panorama. Shifting from silvery Turner through Suffolk-pinked Constable, Paule Constable’s low-gold lighting strikes them exactly like Millet’s Gleaners and later Courbet’s angry take on exploited peasants. Various trap doors on the revolve summon up beds and bodies. Jeremy Herrin’s darkly glittering direction conjures a quiet menace of mass rituals, despite whoops – with sympathetic thuds from Stephen Warbeck’s bass-thwacking score.
So Moore’s register ranges over demotic expletives relished by Duff, almost constantly on stage, with punchy rhyming couplets. Moore’s Mary cheerfully addresses the audience – there’s good polemical reason for this – and Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt isn’t the only lord to be guyed: ‘let us do with with whore, liar, thief, cunt. The best though such brilliant bitch this septic isle ever knew or will. So do not trust a single word I say…’ Strikingly scarlet-gowned, Duff draws eyes and characters.
Comedy radiates from downright siren Mary, as indeed most relationships and dependant action. A sexier Mother Courage crossed with Churchill’s protean fairy Skriker, she’s plausible without magic; just. Mary’s returned rich and from the dead it seems – she survived a river plunge – in search of old love Laura (Cush Jumbo) whom she contacts by way of a message: Lois Chimimba’s appealing crow-scarer Eggy Tom carries it. Banter with Eggy Tom – from both women – ratchets suspense like the talking crow.
Is it just Laura Mary wants, to confront Laura’s brother King or resist enclosures? ‘We are not here for reasons of dry historical accuracy’ Mary states the obvious. When however she intones ‘I was cast out in my youth; off to a far-away land of horror & ruin: yes, Kensington’ to audience gasps, you feel Moore touches powers he invokes: the play premiered before Grenfell. One test of a play’s survival is how it resonates with later events. Common owns a chilling agency.
Despite her best intentions Mary’s not healthy to be around either. Though she uses shrewd psychology and occasionally divines various men’s secrets at the Cock Inn, her presence disturbs. Irishmen brought in by landowners are displacing inhabitants; cue reminder of today’s xenophobia. Fences burn; Irishmen keep replacing them. Leaders of enclosure resistance, Laura and incestuous King (wearily heroic John Dagleish), are wary of this native’s return. And King nearly killed Mary.
Mary’s for resistance too, even persuades Tim McMullan’s Lord of the place to a better place: philanthropy. It’s not difficult, he’s a paper tiger-hunter even ready to shoot himself when confronted with guilt over his syphilis-maddened wife. There’s a glut of guns mainly wielded by Trevor Fox’s menacing Geordie Heron, a hireling lord-enforcer who shoots where he lists.
Mary tries persuading Laura to fly with her to Boston Mass when she prefers Boston Lincs. Laura sacrifices her foal Bessie to propitiate the land after blight; when someone’s shot Laura looks to blame Mary in an equally occult way, calling for rites.
The volte-face of Mary’s and Laura’s feelings drive this play, though we’re distanced by Mary’s continual expository zeal and too-rare scenes of others’ agency. Mary’s new life mirrors her previous one.
It’s here rather than in occasionally tripped-up glottals that Moore’s sweep can falter. Mary’s ambivalence forged by events means sympathies can’t settle because for Moore they haven’t either. Despite memorable characters like Eggy Tom and Laura, there’s little dynamic in relations other than those with Mary. Events drive narrative with vengeance, even eviscerating bloodshed, but once another miracle’s restored things Moore drives his moral through Mary to the audience. In a sense like Pandarus she bequeaths us her diseases – no guesswork needed here.
Duff’s portrays iconically-edged figures; if not Churchill’s Skriker she’s recently travelled one hundred and fifty years as one person in Ella Hickson’s Oil. Iron here too she exudes an imperious sexiness from Cause Celebre and Berenice ranging from delicacy to frank pull. Jumbo’s performance makes you wish for more Laura, Chimimba happily gets more, and McMullen and Dagleish register off-balance unease; even Fox’s flinty implacability is broken in a dance.
The play might just enjoy a more intimate space. But Moore’s set for epic; if he occasionally slackens with human consequences in his picaresque-noir, he’s still got enough silence to play with.
Indeed Common might best thrive on a touch more emotional amplitude without dropping pace. John Clare’s poetry is referenced, including ‘The Mores’ whose ‘faint shadow of immensity’ inspires the Olivier’s spatial best, overarching the large ensemble. Clare warns: ‘Inclosure came and trampled on the grave/Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave.’ Moore invoked Clare’s madness in Town; here he scales the ambition of such a theme at source. He might reflect on Clare’s tenderness as well as anger. Common though will continue to gnarl and root beyond its run. It’ll be well worth seeing how it ages.