DC Moore's 'Common' is genuinely one of the strangest plays I've ever seen, a mad, rambling melange of hysterically divergent ideas that occasionally it feels like it conned everybody involved into staging it. I kind of admire its total otherness, though at the same time it's hard to shake the sense that something must have gone wrong for the NT and co-producers Headlong to allow it to happen.
Moore made his name with brutally funny, small-scale comedies about modern blokes negotiating the modern world. 'Common' is basically the exact opposite of that, being a huge, sprawling drama set during the Industrial Revolution, with a female protagonist – Anne-Marie Duff's enigmatic Mary – ornate, wantonly anachronistic language (which I got the impression wasn't actually intended to be particularly historically accurate) and a plot about... yeah, I'm not totally sure what the plot was about.
The title refers to the common land of Britain, much of which was lost to the nineteenth century enclosure system, whereby large numbers of smallholdings were forcibly consolidated - privatised - into bigger farms, comprehensively screwing over small scale tenant farmers.
This is the backdrop of Moore's story, though it isn't really talked about in much depth and sometimed felt like little more than a pretext to get the inhabitants of the village in which 'Common' is set to dress up in cool 'Wicker Man'-style outfits and act all menacing.
The one unquestionably great thing about the play is Duff's sardonic, fourth wall-breaking performance as Mary, a conwoman, seer, and possible allegory for the oncoming future who returns to the village in the hope of whisking away her erstwhile lover Laura (a rather underused Cush Jumbo) to start a new life.
She is brilliantly entertaining, with a burning charisma and easy confidence that occasionally lets us forget that we have no fucking idea why any of this is happening. Seriously: it rambles all over the shop and lacks any obvious intent - my best guess is it exists because Moore found the language interesting and went from there. Which is fair enough, but his odd stew of ornate sentences and outlandish compound words peppered with modern swears often serves to distance us from a convluted plot that often seems to be aggressively challenging us to give a shit.
Oh, and there's also an animatronic talking crow, because why not eh.
I could never quite work out whether Headlong boss Jeremy Herrin was sympathetic to a text that was always meant to be this weird or performed a heroic salvage job on something that had failed to live up to commission, but at best his production – beautifully lit by Paule Constable – has a wild rural menace and genuine sense of the other. It’s still hard to understand why ‘Common’ wasn’t bashed into shape a bit more. But if it’s a folly it’s a impressively uninhibited one, with an elemental intensity to its ridiculousness.