Common at the National Theatre Back

1809. A flat, expansive, recently harvested field in rural England – probably East Anglia. Empty, save for a parish church in the distant background, there are crows circling overhead as a mysterious stranger, Mary, arrives bearing a letter containing a simple message: ‘she’s back’. So opens DC Moore’s new play Common on the National Theatre’s Olivier stage. The play’s professed central theme is the enclosure of agricultural land in rural England, which though beginning in the Tudor and Stuart periods gathered speed following a series of acts of Parliament, first in 1773 and then in rapid succession in the mid-nineteenth century. The Janus-faced themes of increased agricultural productivity and the release of labourers from the land, providing a work force to fuel the industrial revolution, and the associated suppression of rights and agency of the rural poor are familiar to any social historian of the period. Not content to focus solely on the issue of its title, the play touches on a panoply of late-Georgian social and political topics, from the French Revolution, to the Irish Rebellion of 1798, the implications of urbanisation and industrialisation, and elements of both sectarian prejudice and Enlightenment thought.

On one level, the play interestingly and usefully focuses on elements of the period that are often marginalized both in academic studies and wider perceptions of the long eighteenth century. The persistence of ritual and custom, the enduring legacy of the rites and structures of what Ronald Hutton has termed ‘Merry England’ deserve scholarly attention and are fertile ground for our contemporary popular culture, interested as it often is in the supernatural and unexplained. In wider public understanding, the long eighteenth century is often portrayed in Regency drawing rooms, Napoleonic War naval culture and the court of mad King George, so a return to the land is very welcome. More familiar themes are never far from the surface – Mary’s story is, in a sense, an inversion or perhaps a sequel of the country-girl-arrives-in-metropolis tale so frequently occurring in the drama and literature of the period. Here though, she has cycled through the usual tropes of the metropolitan fallen-woman-made-good before we meet her, and returned to the county of her birth. Irish rebellion and French revolution are cited explicitly, and Enlightenment is hinted at in the pseudonym she gives herself – Lavoisier, after the French father of chemistry; the politeness and sensibility narratives here are played out as urban ‘lies’ in the face of country ‘truth’. Moore’s writing is thick with portmanteau words, rural life ‘countrypure’ and ‘safemerry’, threatened by the ‘cityriddles’ and ‘scheming-damage’ of the ‘Londonswamp’, full as it was of immorality and factories spewing ‘blackrupturingsmoke’. This too is an inversion of the theme of civilised urbanity contrasted with pastoral backwater, but the characterisations here are as cartoonish as any melodrama to grace the stage in 1809 itself.

We follow Mary as she returns to the parish in which she was raised, an orphan growing up alongside King, now the ‘Harvest King’, a sort of nominal, ritual community leader, and his sister Laura, the object of both her brother’s incestuous love, and the once-mutual feelings of Mary. The first half of the play is more narratively tight, as Mary attempts to woo Laura and convince her to set off for a new life in America. Reluctant to leave her community in the midst of struggles to resist the local landowner’s efforts to enclose common land, Laura refuses, and Mary (along with the audience) spends the second half of the play in a confused whirlwind, trying to champion the common interests of the village in order to promote her own individual security. Anne-Marie Duff, a favourite on the National stage, gives a strong performance as Mary, but the real emotional centre of the play belongs to Cush Jumbo’s Laura, whose tender realism shines through the often convoluted, stylised ambitions of the wider narrative.

We are explicitly warned off our task of putting the play in its historical context however; about three-quarters of the way through the performance a character gleefully proclaims ‘we are not here for Reasons of Dry Historical Accuracy’. In and of itself that would be fine. A history play, as Shakespeare well knew, might explore equally well both its own time and that in which it is set, and his seem so effectively to have tapped a vein of our collective consciousness that directors still find them having much to say about our own age. History plays might be no less powerful for having played fast and loose with historical fact, if indeed such a thing even exists. At times I felt Common wanted to be a play about Brexit – the role of the migrant worker, and ideas of belonging and otherness are persistent themes throughout, and this is perhaps fitting, with the Napoleonic period sometimes conceived of as a zenith of specifically British identity constructed in opposition to developments on the continent. Ultimately, however, Common is neither properly of the twentieth-first century nor the long eighteenth. It wants, we sense, to say quite a lot, but in biting off rather more than it can chew, never quite manages a fully developed thought on anything. Ideas on urban and rural life, sexuality, gender, tradition, modernity, religion, superstition, rationality, individual versus collective agency, all try to get a look in.

A glance through the text suggests a highly stylised, formalistically unconventional play that perhaps went astray at the point of being brought to the stage. Moore favours compound nouns and rich visual symbolism, but these have been brought to life by director Jeremy Herrin in a production that feels a bit flat, often modest in a way that sees neither text nor space realised as fully as they could have been. The Olivier stage can be wondrous, but it is also notoriously difficult; built with vast sightlines there is little room to hide, and designers often cope by creating smaller spaces within the whole. Here the desire to evoke the openness and barrenness of mismanaged land means the action often felt rootless and exposed. The previous artistic director of the National Theatre has spoken about how difficult it can be to programme new works in the Olivier, as few contemporary writers tend to write with the epic scale in mind, so any lover of the theatre should admire the ambition here, but the play could have benefited from a more intimate space.

The epigraph from Blake, references to John of Gaunt’s scepter’d isle, abundant animal imagery, interest in superstition and a liberal smattering of four-letter words all bring to mind the twenty-first century’s great play re-examining the rural English idyll, but contrary to my expectations this was not Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem in period dress. Those themes clearly continue to resonate to an urbanised, technology-obsessed population whose drive for ‘progress’ (the word used by the Moore, the long eighteenth century would have favoured the less-Victorian ‘improvement’) has had a grave impact on the earth itself. While Jerusalem was about the dormant spirits of that earth rising amidst a contemporary landscape, Common has at its heart their struggle not to be laid to rest in the first place. While death abounds in Common, nothing ultimately stays buried, but here unfortunately the opportunity for transformation is not met with renewal, but instead a bit of a confused mess.

Common is at the National Theatre, London, from 23rd June to 5th August 2017.