Anne-Marie Duff stars in very strange new drama about England's grubby past
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.
Average User Rating
1.7 / 5
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- 1 star:29
Good luck lasting until the 5th August! That was the most disappointing, excruciating, unimaginative, uninispired, boring and awful play I've ever wasted three hours on! Shockingly bad. At least 30% of the audience left in the interval and a further 10% left during the second half once they realised there is no miracle, it isn't going to get any better! I've only stayed so that I can make a point at leaving during curtain call.
Do not waste your money on it! Better off watching Britain's Got Talent! Yes; it's that awful! The few poor souls that stayed till the end, suffering, probably out of politeness, couldn't run fast enough to get out of the National tonight! An utter pile of garbage.... oh dear!
It only gets one star because that's the only way you can publish a review.
The key points have been made already. Dreadful. Are we missing something as an audience - something that shows we are being too narrow in our views? Should we permit more experimentation than we are prepared to allow? Or does the management of the NT bear some responsibility for not ruining the evening of paying customers (who are also tax payers). If I could spot something innovative or challenging I might be more forgiving - but there wasn't anything (at least not in the first half - I couldn't bear to stay for the whole thing). The music was quite good. Some of the actors were strong, although I personally found Anne Marie Duff too shrill and lacking charisma (or, a logic for her role). The Wicker man touches were quite exciting, as was the shooting of one of the more annoying characters. The swearing seemed completely gratuitous. At least the cloakroom was open at the interval - it will need to be.
It is hard to express quite how excrutiating this play is. The fault is not with the actors who did their best with a one-note, ranting script. Nor with the set designer. The playwright must take full responsibility for all the rambling, centreless agony imposed upon an audience which tried hard to stay the interminably long course. The sensible ones left in the interval. I found a couple of them so drained by the experience they were wrapped round a stiff drink before they could find the strength to take the bus home...
(It doesn't deserve one star. But you can't file a review without rating the play.)
Genuinely surprised at all the negativity for Common.
Is it a classic in the making? No. But it's different and innovative and the sort of thing The National should be doing, at least as part of a mix of big hits and new work.
I found the language one of the most enjoyable parts of the play. At times it was poetic - part Shakespeare, part Joyce - and then would suddenly be modern and vulgar. And Anne-Marie Duff gives it her best shot as a crusading Becky Sharp type of character with a perpetually flexible set of morals and aims.
If you like big shows and west end theatre this probably isn't for you, but I do wonder what the people leaving at interval were expecting and why they came in the first place.
I have seen quite a few plays (about 140 last year alone) and having read some of the reviews on here I was prepared for the worst. So much so that I was questioning myself when I was actually enjoying Common.
I don't see how the language or the plot are too difficult to understand. I found it quite easy to follow. It's true that the whole backdrop of the enclosure of common land is never really the main focus of the play but that would've made for a dreary evening. Instead we have a great witty, at times funny, at times menacing protagonist brilliantly played by Anne-Marie Duff. It's a story of love, greed and the feeling of belonging to the soil that you were born on. The set works and is beautifully lit to create the perfect atmosphere. The costumes are maybe a bit crazy sometimes but add to the play's feel.
As for anyone being upset at the language or the mix of modern and old, Mary the protagonist tells the audience herself in one of her brilliant moments of breaking the fourth wall that none of it was ever intended to be historically accurate. Her whole character seems out of a different time sometimes and connects the audience to what is happening. She seems like the embodiment of change, wrecking havoc in its path and then moving onto the next village or city to bring some more destruction with it.
I think Duff was spell-binding and I don't understand why audiences seem to struggle so much with this play. I was sad to see so many empty seats (even more so after the interval) but I guess not everyone has the same taste.
Why oh why is this and Salome in the Olivier and Angels in America, to which a ticket cannot be bought for love nor money, relegated to the Lyttleton? I have only ever walked out of three plays (although judging by the reviews I may walk out of Salome on Thursday too) but I left at the interval for this one. And judging by the queue at the cloakroom, and the fact that at best it was 60% full, it must have been pretty empty for the second half.
This is a kind of mixture of William Blake and the Wicker Man. The link to the Enclosures was interesting - as was the vague sense that in the ensuing upheavals there might be some vague comparison to Brexit - but the play seemed uninterested in the facts and more in the strange meanderings of its central character. The language is utterly bizarre. Endless compound nouns designed I suppose to create distance in the way period language does. I was there on the night of a captioned performance and very glad I was too. I simply wouldn't have followed it if I hadn't been able to read it. Anne-Marie Duff does her best to energise cadaver of a piece which completely drowns in the vast space of the Olivier. A real pity. What is the National doing with these dud productions?
Really enjoyed this play. I feel that I agree with Adrian and would recommend you read his nuanced review rather than mine!
Erm sorry didn't get this at all. Hard to follow, dark in every sense (plot, themes, lighting, stage) & used profanities as a cheap way to try & inject humour. AnnMarie Duff is one of the finest actresses on the London stage but even her talents can't rescue this miserable production. I left at the interval.
Be warned, there's a gunshot in the first half which will definitely wake you (it did me, anyway). We stayed for the second half and, if we had been in the slightest bit interested, would have benefited from the improved view since all the people sitting in front of us had left. I'm pleased we only bought £15 seats but even that money could have been better spent in a pub!
I saw one of the first previews of this, before they shaved half an hour off it. I doubt that would have helped! It's dull, very dull. I found myself looking around at other audience members as that was more entertaining! I love Anne-Marie Duff and Jeremy Herrin and I couldn't help feeling they should both know better. The writing was the big issue for me - a virtually unintelligible script at times - and not in a Berkovian 'East' kind of way. Also I felt the chorus were substantial but very underused.
The play purports to be about the battle for the common land being enclosed by the landowners who have enacted their own Acts of Parliament to do so. But that is just a distraction and the title - Common - is merely a metaphor for, a link to, the underlying story about the recurring class struggles of the common man against the landed gentry and aristocracy, overlaid with the exploitation of immigrant farm labourers in Norfolk, in this case the Irish.
All of the action - until the final scene - is set on an expansive featureless stage covered in dirt representing the soil after the harvest. At times the characters are lost against the backdrop of three lifeless trees. The characters – all except Mary (Anne-Marie Duff) – are all drably dressed. The action is ponderous and at times it is difficult to see the breaks between acts. The dialogue alternates between slow and fast protracted monologues. The actor Ian-Lloyd Anderson thinks that it is new writing at its best. If so this is a new English spoken in an unfamiliar construct and difficult to digest. It’s certainly not Shakespeare, its difficult to follow. Anne-Marie seems at times to swallow her words. The Irish accents are strong and need concentration, and one can only presume that the laments sung in Gaelic are longings of home. The play is littered liberally with the vulgar “F” word that does nothing to add value but only serves to irritate and lose impact. It seems so out of context with the period of the early 19th C in which the play is set. But I’m led to believe that the playwright loves to swear in all his plays. Maybe that’s why the play comes across as dark and angry. Is the playwright’s intention to show his anger and resentment about today’s society puncturing the narrative?
Annoyingly at irregular intervals the characters especially Mary is compelled to look at the audience, pick out someone and explain something that we have just heard or try to make a joke. This results in a disjointed thread and at times an insult to our intelligence that we cannot recognise the Glaswegian accent of Young Hannah played by Lois Chimimba.
Mary - the leading character (Anne-Marie Duff) - has grown
up in the country with some dark secrets that resonate in today’s world
including child abuse. She escapes to her ‘hell’ that is Kensington, London
where she has become the “best liar,
rogue, thief and faker in this whole septic isle”. There she has
prostituted herself to the wealthy for grace and financial favours as many had
done before her throughout history and many still do, investing her gains in
the very industries that are benefitting from enclosure and are fuelling the
industry revolution that is in full swing at the time the play is set in the
early 19th C.
But Mary has an agenda and has returned to Norfolk on a mission to rekindle a flame, rally the locals against the enclosure movement, and to also to seek revenge on those who had mistreated her. The poster for the play depicts Anne-Marie Duff, the character Mary dressed in red holding a crow.The black crow: a symbol of death, mystery and memories that reflects Mary’s own dicing with her own death, the mystery of who exactly she is and the dark memories she carries. Mary’s red dress! A symbol of the blood of the common man that she plays her part in spilling.
Her goal seems to be reconnect with her younger sister Laura (Cush Jumbo) with whom she desires to rekindle a rejected lesbian relationship and whisk her away to Boston, USA. She elicits the help of a young simpleton, Eggy Tom (Lois Chimimba) - whose job it is to be a human scarecrow with the aid of a brilliant puppet crow perched on his arm - to convey the message to Laura that she is back.
At first her posh contrived London accent deceives the locals and so she is able to goad the labourers (Connor, Graham and Heron) and foremost amongst them King (John Dagleish) - with an almost witchlike capacity to recall the past and predict the future. Mary enlists not only them but also the Lord of the Manor (played by Tim McMullan) to rebel. Yet, she is found out.
There follows a protracted fight the purpose of which is unclear. Connor’s - the groundskeeper - dog is found dead and Eggy Tom is blamed for its death and so is summarily shot dead by King. Mary’s true identity is revealed and the labourers turn against her culminating in her being buried alive.
End of first half
But this is a false alarm, because after the interval, Mary rises from the dirt to converse with the crow, and live to taunt all who come in her way, turning on Laura (her sister) and attempting to seduce the Lord.
Her suggestion is to offer herself to him to live in sin and have her already pregnant child - sired by one of many men she has knew in London - to be the Lord’s descendent to replace his son who was murdered by his still living insane wife who lives… in hell….. London. Is she really pregnant? Is the story of murdered son also fact or fiction? We are unsure because the story is told by Mary. The labourers rebel, but the rebellion is quashed by a massacre by the military for reasons that are unclear.
Mary has changed into white clothes and arises from a sleep in a four-poster bed. But by now it’s increasingly difficult to understand the plot and or even the purpose of the play.
In the final scene, an oversized Romanesque style façade drops down from the rafters and Mary announces she is off back to London taking the maid (Peta Cornish) with her. Mary is the last to walk through the door, closing it with a flick of her foot in almost petulant manner.
The opinion of those in and directing it is that the play is" funny". It is not. "Really spectacular", it is not. Yes it has some Irish equivalent of a Morris dance. I agree that you "don’t expect what is going to happen" precisely because it’s a very difficult play to follow and listen to. It is not "a gothic masterpiece". It does have "digging, lots of digging of graves" and that maybe sums up the play, digging its own grave.
Mind boggling, tedious play and a waste of talented actors (the only redeeming feature of this incoherent mess). We left at the interval and had a much better time sinking a pint on the terrace overlooking the Thames. I suggest you do the same.
Shambolic, unforgivingly dull, relentlessly jumbled dialogue, strange casting and utterly unentertaining.
In the end I felt glad that I couldn't understand every third word mumbled by the cast because it became very clear that I wasn't missing anything and at least this cut down my misery by 33%.
In a way it was money well spent as, when I left at the interval, I was filled with the kind of intense sense of relief that money can't buy.
It's undeserving of even one star.
Hmmm. The two most reviled plays with reviewers and audience members so far this year seem to be Common at the National and Don Juan in Soho at the Wyndhams. One is a sloppy masturbatory mess meant to be a comedy but without any laughs starring an untalented actor who isn't even trying to put in any kind of effort, the other is a high falutin' masturbatory mess meant to be a profound statement on gender and class which is so incomprehensible as to alienate the entire audience starring a vastly talented actor who looks as confused as everyone else. Both huge creative flops - one for pandering to the lowest common denominator, the other by failing to want to appeal to anyone. Which is worse? Both! I didn't think anything could be as interminably boring as my night at Wyndham's - how wrong I was....Please God we have sunk bottom in the theatrical year now. The only way is up.
Rambling play that doesn't focus on the issue regarding Common Land... kudos to Anne-Marie but otherwise... avoid!
Weirdly dull. There are some interesting moments but it's mostly 2 1/2 hours of people with no apparent characterisation banging on endlessly about subjects totally incomprehensible.
Some loud booing at the end.
Not offensive, just dull and pointless.
This is a bloody marvelous play. The main character is a survivor (and then some) and in many ways not entirely bound by the confines of the play. I don't mean this in the sense that she frequently breaks the fourth wall, although she certainly does: she performs superhuman feats of escape, she reads minds and motivations and calls bullshit on hypocritical attempts to escape responsibilities. She's the one character that truly owns all of her actions and their consequences, including the she hasn't planned.
Mary/Catherine's knowingness is beautifully set off in her interaction with the innocent, personified by Tom/Hanna. Other reviews are talking about the Wicker Man (as if that's a bad thing!), to which I could add The Crimson Petal and the White, the works of Thomas Hardy and those of Jane Austen and not be completely inaccurate . It's great, see it and make up your own mind.
I've seen so many plays at the National that it's inevitable that there have been some duds - indeed, you could contend that risk-taking requires it - but there have not been many, and I remain very impressed with the theatre. Common, though, clearly enters the dud group. It was dreadful. Embarrassing. It should close now, freeing the theatre for other plays. The performances were good enough, as was the staging (apart from the music being much too loud). The problem was the source material, which was boring and devoid of evident purpose. Even Anne-Marie Duff's asides were weak, and the character made them a great opportunity for humour. So, a dud. No problem - duds happen and the National will continue to shine - but please don't let the season run its course just because the schedule says so.
I really enjoyed this. The performances were terrific, particularly Anne Marie Duff and Lois Chimimba. The staging was really atmospheric and the Wicker Man/Jack in the Green sequences were chilling and scary, I found it funny, too. It's like a dark, female version of Fielding's Tom Jones.
Such a dreary play. The synopsis promised so much but it was actually just a plotless jumble of events with a central character whose motivation was a mystery to all and several random gory deaths. I think they may have dropped an Act as the programme said it would last 2 hrs 55 including interval but we were out in 2hrs 25. Did someone not watch this play and realise it was rubbish before they put it on? I think the cast were aware that they were playing to a severely depleted audience after the interval as they did the swiftest curtain call I've ever seen. Don't waste your money and time going to see this!
really bad - don't waste your money - felt sorry for the cast as so many left during the show - wicker man meets Sesame Street - talking crow a nadir of the show
A dire experience not to be repeated. Lots of inaudible soliloquies, puzzling accents and no plot. My companion fell asleep and we cut our losses and escaped in the interval. I've seen great plays at the National and some that aren't so good. Usually you can find positives in all of them but not this time. I had the misfortune to see the very disappointing Salome recently Common made Salome look good. Who is commissioning this stuff?
I enjoyed it. It's overly ambitious in taking on pre-Christian agricultural traditions, the abuse of women in 18/19th century England, immigration, industrialisation and the expropriation of common land. But, I have no problem with that. I also had no problem with the script or language. The play fails on its own terms - it neither educates or explains, but it entertained me. So it's 3 stars from me, not least because the acting is first class.
I once asked the NT for a refund because a play was so awful - no luck. I might try again with this one. Far too long and rambling; the abundant use of four-letter swear words had no purpose and were tiresome - there are other words available to fill gaps; Anne-Marie Duff is usually a great actor but seemed unable to get her words across to the audience - they rolled into each other instead. And what was the play supposed to be about? The brief description beforehand talked about the loss of common land. Some fleeting signs but no consistency. Why on earth did Duffy disappear into her grave just before the interval - and crawl out again as the second part started. With the audience much-reduced.
A great disappointment. Did nobody notice during rehearsals that it was not worth carrying on?
I am incredulous that this play made it to stage at The National Theatre (or any theatre!) given how crushingly boring it is. I can only deduce the person who chose to put it on was bribed, blackmailed or had had his or her mind abducted by aliens during the decision making process.
So bad was the pain of sitting through the first half alone, I am postponing booking anything else at the National for quite some time.
This was the most terrible thing ever seen at the theatre - at the National of all places! It was so badly written, incomprehensible and dull that we left before the end of the first half, something never done before in a 1/4 of a century of serious theatre-going. Even after reading the programme, I am none the wiser as to what was going on!
This, Salome and Don Juan in Soho. Has there ever been such a run of zero to one star productions in such a short time? Like the other two, Common has shifted the goalposts of how cluelessly bad a production can be.
I woke up so annoyed I wrote an email to the National ! I have never ever done that before so it must have been really bad. Like the other reviewers I always search for intent and usually find something to be positive about. Watching this made me consider if someone wasn't just pulling our leg making us sit through three hours of mud, guts and swearing which left one mildly revolted but unmoved , un amused and almost crying with boredom! The acting was flawless, as was the set, but who let this play get through the rigorous scrutiny of the National Theatre to the Olivier stage and through the rehearsal process without someone crying wolf needs to own up! The best bit was the music but the musicians have my total empathy having to sit through that every night. What is going on?
We stayed for the second act out of politeness to the actors and in the vague hope that the 1 hour 45 minutes already invested may amount to something. The revelation we hoped for was not forthcoming and we were presented with more muddled dialogue, more inconsistently written plot and the same characters whose destiny we didn't care about and didn't make sense. Throughout the production there was the occasional gun shot no doubt intended to wake us out of our torpor !
I also saw Salome and was equally frustrated by the one paced production that started so epic and left it with nowhere to go. Again valiant acting was at odds with a dreadful script and poor directing which left one totally unmoved and listless.
Actors, designers please forgive me, you are amazing but the writers/commissioning editors/directors need to do some soul searching...
I was wary, having been bored silly by 'Salome' and this farrago was as bad, substituting swearing for wit and some nice Achimboldo-cum-Wicker Man trickery could not disguise the threadbare plot, the waste of as fine an actor as Ms Duff and the reliably fruity Tim McMullan in a farcical attempt at 'epic' - though it was epically pointless, nothing so acute as an oblique comment on the forthcoming general election. No, the hints of Captain Swing were wasted in this awful script, and the pointless swearing had me on alert early doors. Sets nice but none of Headlong's drive showed to effect and the audience understandably very quiet at the interval, when me and my two companions left, with headaches. My friend Tom had a nice ice cream but why had no one spotted the absence of narrative drive, the lack of point, the witless dialogue? It was a waste of 1 3/4 hours and the National now has two failures alternating on its prestige arena. A thoroughly annoying effort, it needs radical surgery or it simply won't last. If it has a message, it is beware!
Rubbish, frankly. And I am not by nature a grouch but there are times when it's required. Again.Such a pity, and a waste of effort. I'd have given it no stars if I could, nice sets notwithstanding.
Deeply disappointed by this unfocused, plotless mess of a play. Excruciating was the word I used as we left during the interval. The playwright seems to have invented a new and indecipherable language, which desperately wanted to be 18th century colloquial and Shakespearean and modern, but failed so miserably that not even the actors knew how to manage the delivery of the dialogue. It just came across as affected and self-conscious. While the conceit of having a rakish female protagonist at the story's centre was an inventive one, it was flooded by too many competing strands. Essentially, the play didn't seem to know what it was about and thrust soliloquy after meaningless soliloquy at us for nearly two hours ( and that was just the first half). For those of us familiar with the history of the period and enclosure, the subject matter was clumsily handled - a historian might have read through it and pointed out some fairly simple errors, such as the fact that aristocrats didn't live in Kensington in 1809 - they lived in Mayfair. But this is a minor quibble in the face of some much bigger issues. I have no idea how this made it to the Olivier.
Just in case you haven't got the message, this is shockingly bad. 'Excruciating' and 'dire' are certainly apt descriptions.
Really struggling to find any merit in it whatsoever. Acting, language and music all have strong points but there's nothing new, no purpose and certainly not a single element that could be described as 'funny', bar a bit of cliched bawdiness and slightly flaky regional accents.
Cast list includes at least 50 names associated with the production; it is staggering that none managed to stop this from happening.
Even allowing for it being just two previews-in, this production is unsalvageable. Changes will be made as it was obviously haemorrhaging audience members within half an hour, however, even if half of it is edited out you'll still have 90 minutes of tiresome, crass, dirge.
This is DIRE - such a waste of time, talent, money and effort...it is possibly one of the worst theatre experiences i have endured. It wasn't challenging or funny or shocking or remotely entertaining. Such a shame.
I created a profile here specifically to review this play. It is dire. I agree with the other reviewers it is way too long, incredibly dull. We left at intermission, which was at 915pm. The break came too late. I was spent. The dialogue was excruciating. The female leads were strong as actors, but I can only imagine they were tired of screeching at each other. What a waste of talent. The staging lacked imagination on what is one of London's best stages. Did the director not get feedback in rehearsals or previews? The National feels like it's losing its way artistically these days. As illustrated by Common. Avoid at all cost.