Centring around the theme of enclosure – the transition of land from public to private ownership – D C Moore’s Common depicts a tale of betrayal and a class: a tale of citizens not content to see their way of life destroyed in the early 1800s. Despite the date that Common is set, the pivotal questions of common land and rights to ownership prevail today, whether it is reclaiming the empty Holloway Prison[1] or disputes over ramblers on farmland.[2] Protagonist Mary (Anne Marie Duff) is a liar, a thief, and a rogue. After being cast out by the community and left for dead in a river, she has returned in the search for her past love Laura (Cush Jumbo) as well as retribution. But things don’t turn out as well as the community rejects her a second time and has to face the duplicitous Mary’s wrath.

This production is running alongside Salomé (about which you can read culturised’s thoughts here) and unfortunately shares some of the same problems of pacing, struggles with an overly wordy script, and an almost empty stage. The expansive and versatile Olivier stage is underused, being used to portray a patch of earth only being broken up by a minimalist bar and sparse beds. While there is a symbolic importance to this, the undivided nature of the land being a key component, it is visually uninteresting for much of the show. Some beautiful moments come as people fill the space as trees, sheaves, and just to give a sense of community. The people are depicted as one with the earth, and even seemingly interchangeable with it: “this land a together Eden” Mary declares. The unifying nature of the title refers to both people and land demonstrating something thoroughly ordinary yet cohesive and together.

The Guardian’s Michael Billington has referred to Common as “William Blake meets The Wicker Man”, and while slightly reductive this certainly describes the feel of the production.[3] The overall aesthetic of the land at the centre is almost reminiscent of the National’s recent production of Our Country’s Good, with the dirt of the earth being the focal point and Blake’s green pastures and demonised urban descriptions are heavily evoked. On the skyline at the rear of the stage a small dark silhouettes of a town in the distance but other that this there is nowhere to hide on the open set giving an incredibly exposed and eerie feel.

This is a play about Little England, and a fight for freedom against obstruction, ownership, and division. It depicts the rural countryside’s rallying cry against private land ownership. To this small community there is a cult-like way of life seen in the unified worship of the Field King and while there has been a previous amnesty with local lords, the enforcement of enclosure is about to bring that all to an end and it is more clear than ever that their way of life is only possible as long as the local lord acquiesces to its exitstence. Moore has created an intricate world with some interesting characters but this universe feels only partially formed with a plot line slightly too complex to be done justice as the audience attempt to follow a very complicated script where verbs and pronouns are seemingly interchangeable. This olde worlde lexical pattern gives a bouncy rhythm, but the sheer excess of words detracts from the effect and it becomes difficult to maintain concentration over two and a half hours.

The juxtaposition of the countryside and the city is intelligently done and Common does raise some thought provoking questions about the difference between individualist and collective understandings of ownership. Mary stands out immediately as the outsider through her vivid red outfit and stylish hat. In this attire she represents an otherness to these people that is conflated with London – an alien civilisation to these people so entrenched in a sense of place. The darkness of the red also serves to emphasis her transgression, destructive femininity and sexuality through her past profession as prostitute. The turning on Mary by the community is also symbolic of the country turning on the perceived urban elites driving the Industrial Revolution, and her very presence is a reminder of the change that is to come and where the power lies in the struggle. The people of Common must either adapt to their freedoms to be limited, or suffer eradication. These English country folk (not to be confused with the Irish “traitors” hat have been brought in to build the fences in a step that feels like the baby steps of globalisation) are aligned with a type of pre-Christianity paganism. The opening scene depicts a ritualistic burning of a fence and the use of earthy materials to create animalistic masks. The idea of common land being farmed and maintained collectively for common purpose seems as alien to us now as these veiled chanters.

Duff provides the stand out performance and is captivating despite the cumbersome language. She is backed up by further strong performances from Jumbo as her feisty past lover Laura, and that of Tim McMullan as the local aristocrat. The rest of the cast are generally nameless presenting a unified entity. Mary is a very unique heroine and while sometime baffling this is an interesting piece of theatre, that perhaps if staged in somewhere less grand than the Olivier might have fared better, and you can’t help feeling that another production would have made better use of the space.

Common is showing at the National Theatre until the 5th of August. For more information and tickets see here.

[1] Charlotte England, “Reclaiming Holloway Prison”, LRB Blog 29th September 2016. https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2016/09/29/charlotte-england/reclaiming-holloway-prison/

[2] Patrick Sawer, “New battles in the countryside as ramblers take on owners over access”, The Telegraph 8th August 2010. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/earthnews/7931925/New-battles-in-the-countryside-as-ramblers-take-on-owners-over-access.html

[3] Michael Billington, “Common review – William Blake meets The Wicker Man in wild lament for a lost England”, The Guardian 7th June 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/jun/07/common-review-anne-marie-duff-cush-jumbo-national-theatre