Anne-Marie Duff in Common

Common by DC Moore – Olivier, National Theatre

For the third time in the last few months (after A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Here She Comes) a production has its characters walking on a bare earth stage. Soil is charged with meaning, and here it becomes the matter of the play. DC Moore’s leering, fantastical/historical romp is set during a period of enclosure around the turn of the 19th century. The period when private landowners gradually appropriated Britain’s common land, changing the relationship between people and the land for good, is often strangely overlooked. ‘Common’ places it centre stage, personified by Anne-Marie Duff’s character Mary, an avenging but treacherous spirit of the age.

‘Common’ has received hostile reviews, partly because of its language. Moore goes for broke with a rich, wild combination of pseudo-olden days English, modern slang and swearing. Early on a human scarecrow (Lois Chimimba) with an animatronic crow on her arm declares “Aye, harvest innit” which gives fair warning of what’s to come. The language is mostly delightful, sometimes incomprehensible, and like nothing seen on stage for a long time.

Duff’s performance as the mysterious prostitute Mary is very watchable. Most recently lumbered with an impossible script in ‘Oil’ at the Almeida, Duff is clearly seeking lead roles that push the boundaries. In ‘Common’, she is part of something a great deal more significant and original. As Mary, she cast threats and declarations of intent in all directions, to both audience and characters. Her arrival in the estate village she was driven from many years before spells death and ruin. Her reasons for returning shift drastically as the play unfolds, but she is less a person than a symbol of onrushing, industrial change – irresistibly cunning and strange. She is surrounded by some equally enjoyable performances: Lois Chimimba’s hapless Eggy Tom, Cush Jumbo’s deluded sister/lover, Tim McMullan’s demonic, aristocratic landowner.

‘Common’ is half parody, half allegory. The accomplished spectacle on stage – choreographed mowers, dancers in animal heads, a burning stile, scenes of brutal slaughter – channels ‘The Wicker Man’, ‘A Field In England’, David Rudkin and John Arden. Moore is clearly writing both about the pre-industrial past and the 21st century, in which those at bottom of the heap are bound by rules set by the today’s aristocratic landowners, employers who control capital and resources. The enclosures are, after all, still relevant – the same families still own the land. Moore’s stylised approach seems to gone down badly with critics. This seems unfair. ‘Common’ is a rich and original work which uses language to draw a powerful connection between past and present. I saw it on election night, exit polls lighting up phones the moment the curtain dropped. It seemed not only a entertaining evening bursting with ideas, but a play grappling unashamedly with current injustice and speaking directly to perceptions of ourselves as a democracy.