Sandy Pritchard-Gordon

Sandy Pritchard-Gordon
Theatre Blog

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Common At The Olivier

Oh dear, Anne-Marie Duff does her level best, but even she can’t transform D.C. Moore’s overly ambitious play into an engaging piece of theatre.  The central subject of land enclosure during the 18th and 19th centuries, at a time when the common people of England were very much entrenched in the mystical and spiritual world, is a promising theme. Unfortunately the playwright’s decision to include an adjective laden and extremely confusing language, defeats the commendable subject matter and, for that matter, the listener. No amount of ominous drumming, blood and guts and heavy (and I do mean heavy) doses of swearing can relieve the tedium and bewilderment as to what is actually happening and why.

The first few minutes are promising enough.  The huge Olivier stage is transformed into a bleak wasteland, whilst the large cast, encased in animal masks and the like, trudge in single file upstage, silhouetted against an uncompromising skyline.  Drumbeats accompany them and the menacing air continues as the peasants form a circle and their ‘leader’, wearing, what looks like a wicker waste paper basket on his head, sets fire to some fencing.  We are intrigued, but it’s short lived, because the lights then go up, Anne-Marie Duff’s Mary, dressed in scarlet gown and tricorn hat enters the stage and talks to the audience.  Our first introduction to Moore’s over-ripe and under clear language and the beginning of the play’s rapid descent.

Although much of Mary’s dialogue is indecipherable, we do learn that she has returned to her home village (presumably in Norfolk as Norwich is mentioned later but, as everyone’s dialect is different, this is just a guess) from London, where she worked as a prostitute.  She informs us that she is a female rogue who has conned a London aristocrat and has come back home in order to collect her female lover, Laura (an underused Cush Jumbo) so they can run away together.  Laura is living with her brother, King (John Dagleish) who has problems reconciling himself to the fact that she is his sister.  Has an incestuous relationship taken place?  Like so much in this play, we’re not sure, but he has definitely sold Laura the story that he thrashed Mary senseless and watched her drown, which is why she suddenly disappeared.  Actually Mary has a habit of raising herself from the dead but that’s another bewildering plotline.  As is the question as to whether this ‘whore, liar, thief’ actually wants to do good by halting the enclosing of the land or do bad by siding with those who want progress.

Common was originally scheduled to last just over three hours, so the fact that it now runs for just two hours, twenty must hint that the rehearsal room was perturbed that all was not going well.   It is billed as dark and funny.  Dark certainly; there is a disembowelling, Wicker Man-type pagan rituals, syphilis, and shootings a plenty, including that of Eggy Tom (an excellent Lois Chimimba), a young boy who owns a talking crow.  Funny?  Well the talking crow is quite amusing.

Jeremy Herrin, the director, previously gave us the wonderful People, Places & Things, and Wolf Hall, amongst others, so that coupled with the casting of Anne-Marie Duff and Cush Jumbo, means that Common promises much.  Sadly it doesn’t deliver.  It’s a no from me I’m afraid. 

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