At first glance, DC Moore’s Common looked refreshingly uncommon, boasting a strong female-led cast, with a queer woman at its heart. Hurrah, I thought, and all on a main stage at the National Theatre.
But when this would normally be a reason to big-up a playwright, who is attempting to address the underrepresentation of female relationships on stage, instead, Moore’s ambitious play has faced a bit of a backlash for being completely bizarre – and it is.
Anne-Marie Duff plays the 19th Century protagonist, Mary. She swaggers onto the stage, a vibrant red vision against the murky backdrop of Richard Hudson’s dramatic and expansive set. She recounts the tales of her conquests in London that earned her the reputation of being a whore, liar and a cunt. She’s feisty, funny and pretty kick-ass and I began to think those TimeOut comments had been largely exaggerated.
Mary, presumed dead, returns to her rural homeland, which is on the cusp of enclosure. She’s come to reclaim her lover Laura (the brilliant Cush Jumbo), and to seek revenge on Laura’s brother, who left Mary for dead in an incestuous jealous rage… are you still with me?
From this point, it all starts to get a bit, well, muddy. For starters, we meet the glorious Lois Chimimba as Eggy Tom, who isn’t quite the full ticket and carries around an animatronic crow, believing it to be the reincarnation of her father. There is also an army of pretty angry farm-folk, who partake in masked pagan rituals, usually resulting in a savage belly-slashing, guts aplenty. And then Mary, who is somewhat a spiritual being, reading fortunes and cheating death (numerous times). Is it witchcraft? Is she the devil? Or is it just one big con? Who knows!
It’s hard to work out what Common is really about as there’s a real lack of clarity and direction, with many strands that never seem to weave together. The title makes reference to the threat of enclosure of the common land and the revolt from the rural communities, but it’s largely underexplored. Headlong’s director Jeremy Herrin, does the best with what he’s given, as do the talented cast (Anne-Marie Duff on particularly fine form). But it’s clear they’re all wading through the density, trying to make sense of it all.
It doesn’t help that Moore’s dialogue is a mashup of prose, Shakespeare, profanities and slang, that smothers any glimpse you had at working out what on earth was going on. I admire his playfulness with words and at times the language is fun and powerful. Mary’s foul-mouth is an essential part of her charm and she warns at the beginning that ‘if my language offends, fist-fuck you all.’ However, the long, multi-hyphenated insults begin to grow tedious and are unnecessarily elaborate.
For all its flaws, Common has some wonderfully dark moments, heightened by Paule Constable’s eerie and atmospheric lighting design. Equally Hudson’s vast, muddy meadow gives a real sense of isolation and allows the shadows to dance out across the landscape, as the masked figures threaten.
It will leave you completely baffled, but with every scene you can’t deny Moore keeps you intrigued and engaged, wondering wtf will happen next. From previews to press night, Common has already shed a hefty 40 minutes, but sadly it’s still not quite enough to save this ambitious new play.
Finally, it is a shame that the sexuality of Moore’s lead character has been largely overlooked, due to the jumbled nature of this production. I still applaud him for representing a minority on the London stage and writing a strong lesbian character. It’s rare and it shouldn’t be, but it’s a teeny step in the right direction. But wouldn’t it be nice if that was more… common?
(Photo courtesy of Johan Persson)