Common, National Theatre

So. Rufus Norris needed a play for the Olivier. And DC Moore had an idea. Enclosure (privatisation of common land) and a charismatic, criminal, borderline Ricardian female lead.

I made a resolution a couple of months ago that I’d only write about shows I liked. I’m now breaking that resolution.

Reason why: this is one of the worst written plays I have ever seen. It’s so poor I feel like I could have written it myself. The plot is pointless (not under-developed, not non-existent: pointless. It’s there, it’s just rubbish). The whole play is written in ineffective fake archaisms. The verbal plays that are meant to be funny aren’t. A sentence ending in ‘in truth’ is supplemented by ‘in truth’ (as in: in fact/truly). The swearing, clearly intended to be humorous, is distinctly unpithy.

Whenever I read Chekhov there’s one thing I’m impressed by. He knows when to change the scene and when a scene change comes the audience is ready for it. It always feels like the right time to move on. This play is the opposite of that. There’s an early scene in the local pub (predictably called ‘The Cock’) that literally ends halfway through the scene. Not in the sense of: oooh sudden scene change. In the sense of: this scene has no dramatic arc – I felt like we were halfway through and now they’ve just started moving all the props round what on earth is going on. The dramatic structure of this scene is absent. I’m going to do DC Moore a favour and presume that the rest of a scene was there but was lost to the masses of cuts made to the play during previews.

And then there are the scene changes. A comment Rupert Goold made in The Stage a while back sticks in the mind: the director’s job is to cover up the weak bits in the text. This is the definition of a weak text. There are some parts that Jeremy Herrin could not conceivably have improved. The scene changes are not one of those bits. Around ten actors in non-speaking roles walk back and forth across the stage holding scythes and trees sticking out of their backpacks. The Olivier is the only place where I’ve ever seen scene transitions accompanied by a chorus of ten actors jogging around doing things on stage to set the scene. I think there’s a reason why it isn’t being replicated elsewhere. It’s ineffective at best and embarrassing at worst.

‘Marius [von Mayenburg] still has some form of battle in his version. I am positively certain, however, that I won’t have actors in camouflage uniform and field knapsacks running across the stage acting ‘battle’. This cannot be but embarrassing.’

Thomas Ostermeier on his version of Richard III with Marius von Mayenburg (The Theatre of Thomas Ostermeier, p. 201)

The actors in Common aren’t wearing camouflage but they are wearing period dress. And there is a literal battle scene. No words, just an acted out battle with people running around and pretending to die. I’ve heard directors talking about the Shakespeare productions of old with massive battle scenes and people in actual armour. That’s literally this, with the massive downside that you can’t even appreciate the writing in a messy production. I’m trying not to turn this into another rant about the Olivier but: what is it with extras in the Olivier? King Lear, Twelfth Night, and now this. You don’t need massive casts with loads of extra non-speaking roles to fill the Olivier. Although, in fairness to Common, it (mostly) doesn’t go down the big set route to try and fill the space. Props for that. Although it loses points for the obligatory Olivier unnecessary use of the revolve.

Now that the obligatory thickpiecey bit about the Olivier is over: I’m not convinced Herrin is brilliant at covering up the weak bits in the text. There are these cringey ritual killing scenes that aren’t at all scary. The exits and entrances suffer under Herrin’s direction. They all flop. Exits and entrances obviously have dramatic potential but somehow this playwright director combo have clubbed together to make sure that not a single entrance or exit feels dramatic. They just feel like an actor having to walk for ages to get to the place on the stage where they need to be to deliver their lines.

I think it was Lyn Gardner who said that if a show is just a tap dripping, you have to listen to and watch how the tap drips. I’m trying to listen to how the tap drips and find the merit in Common.

Here goes.

  1. The set is intensely powerful: a sprawling mass of black soil. It’s in/fertility, it’s the motherland, it’s the state of the nation in a period where land is everything.
  2. The model village-esque scenery at the back of the stage for the first half is a constant reminder of the village’s reliance on this common land mass, and a reminder of the blurred lines in the piece that exits in the liminal space between reality and uncertainty (the crow, Mary’s resurrections).
  3. The land exists on stage but the epic is transferred to among the audience: Mary is an almost machiavel whose audience interaction is the first and last point in the play (it’s SO much more than a framing device).

Mary’s charisma is served by her engagement with the audience, pointing out specific audience members. Ladies and gentlemen. You madam. Etc. But sitting right at the front, uncomfortably close to the actors exposes fakery. The ‘audience interaction’ in Common is not real. Anne-Marie Duff points at people, addresses them: but she isn’t really engaging with them. They’re just lines in the script, designed to engineer the sense of audience interaction. Sitting so close, I could see that whilst AMD was sometimes making eye contact, she was just delivering lines of a script. I don’t think the audience interaction in this play is meant to be fake. I think it’s just an attempt at it that went wrong. Which is quite revealing of the whole.

Cf Lars Eidinger in Richard III. A modern machiavel who goes down into the audience to speak to them, banter with them, etc. All genuine. All real(ish). Inserting phrases for the actor to indicate that they are interacting with the audience (eg ‘you madam’) is not the same as a genuine rapport with the audience.

Mary’s dominant swagger makes me want to see her as a Lars Eidinger as Richard III kind of character, with the exception that this production fails in the excellence factor and fails in the meta/audience interaction factor. Despite everything this production sells Mary as, she’s the opposite of Ostermeier’s Richard III. That’s who she should be: unreal, swaggering, sweary, verbiose, controlling, powerful, intensely charismatic (yet evil) and aggressive. Anne-Marie Duff’s character is the British theatrical equivalent of Ostermeier’s R3. The British one* is never as good.
* The British one = the National Theatre one

Was that really worth breaking my resolution? Nah. Got me back into the swing of it though.

PS. Have just remembered I didn’t write down anything about the talking crow! There is an animatronic talking crow and it is better than half the actors. Nice feathers, 4/5.

Common at the National Theatre is a co-production with Headlong. Photo by Johan Persson: John Dagleish as King.


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