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Common, National Theatre, review: ‘Anne-Marie Duff is compelling but Common lacks primal power’

PUBLISHED: 11:00 14 June 2017

Anne-Marie Duff and Cush Jumbo in Common at the National Theatre. Picture: Johan Persson

Anne-Marie Duff and Cush Jumbo in Common at the National Theatre. Picture: Johan Persson

JOHAN PERSSON

Despite its ambition and having plenty of potential resonance, Common is dense and wilfully bewildering with little space for development

C Moore’s ambitious work is far from a dry history play, but – despite losing half an hour from its original three-hour run time – it’s an unwieldy beast that Jeremy Herrin’s production struggles to tame.

Rural England, 1809, a time of forced enclosure: the fencing off of common land, turning small independent farmers into low-paid labourers for the wealthy. But as soon as the local lord orders Irish workers to put up fences, the villagers burn them down.

That struggle has plenty of potential resonance: the side effects of modernisation, populist rebellion, anger turned on unwanted migrants.

But Moore also throws in a taboo melodrama, supernatural meanderings, Wicker Man-esque Pagan cult, fourth wall-breaking and gleeful anachronisms, plus ostentatious symbols like dead animals.

The loamy, expletive-ridden poetry is intriguing but dense, making an already complex piece wilfully bewildering. It’s hard to get invested in the personal and political dramas when there’s little space for either character or theme to develop.

Anne-Marie Duff is compelling as the scheming, bewitching heroine, who somehow transcends class and gender, but Mary remains more idea than person. She’s strongest interacting with the sadly underused Cush Jumbo as fiery country girl Laura – though their romance surely would have provoked more of a response.

There’s good support from Tim McMullan as a sardonic aristocrat and Trevor Fox as his ferocious right-hand, but John Dagleish seems oddly miscast, failing to convince as the violent rebellion leader who lusts after his sister.

Richard Hudson’s barren earth leaves the actors stranded on the vast Olivier stage. More effective is Stephen Warbeck’s percussive music and Paule Constable’s painterly, expressive sky.

There are striking moments, from a talking crow to the literal spilling of guts, but it lacks either the historical detailing or primal power to consistently engage.

Common runs at the National Theatre until August 5.

2/5 stars

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