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"What beasts rule this world?" — Mary
John Dagleish as King (Photo: Johan Persson)
Someone has taken a scythe to DC Moore's epic play on the loss of common land to the English people. Different but similar things happened in Scotland with what is known as the Highland Clearances when large landowners consolidated the land rented by smaller subsistence farmers and drove them off their smallholdings altogether, thereby clearing huge areas to be used as pasture for sheep.

In England, the law changed allowing those that fenced off land to restrict the rights of those who have used the same common land for centuries, to graze sheep, feed pigs, chop down wood and fish in the rivers and streams. The country dwellers often moved from the countryside to towns where they formed the industrial workforce. Many individual acts were passed to take away common land and common rights, removing some rights awarded to people by Magna Carta, the legal document signed by King John in 1415 at the behest of the English barons.

DC Moore's play Common looks at these land changes in England around the start of the nineteenth century through a female vagabond and adventuress, Mary (the National Theatre's next Lady Macbeth, Anne-Marie Duff) who returns to the country area, where she grew up, to her first love Laura (Cush Jumbo). Mary has lived partly on her wits and partly through prostitution, learning enough from the aristocracy to exploit their weaknesses for her own profit. She talks about a far away land of havoc and ruin and then quips, "Yes, Kensington!"

An opening scene featuring the King of the Harvest (John Dagleish) in an enormous headdress made of erect twigs and wheat has echoes of The Wicker Man, a film where a virginal policeman was the subject of sacrifice in an outlying Scottish island. The villagers dance with magnificent local costumes and headdresses echoing the produce that is all too lacking from the current harvest where the wheat is black and blighted.

In the local public house, the Cock Inn, Mary collars people to convince them that she has magical powers and we realise how vulnerable this society is to superstition and magic as an explanation for misfortune. Eggy Tom (Lois Chimimba) has an animatronic pet crow so realistic I thought it might be a real one until its actions seemed beyond belief in terms of trained performance.

We meet the local landowner Lord (played tongue in cheek by Tim McMullan) whose land ownership dates back to 1066 and the Norman Conquest. The Lord refuses to employ local labour until they accept his enclosures.

Trevor Fox as Heron is the representative of the Lord who threatens all opposition with violent reprisals. He is employing Irish labourers to fence the land, so here a comment on the uses of immigrant labour, and we see people process with quivers on their backs carrying small trees, silhouetted to great but mysterious and ambiguous effect. Are they wood cutters providing wood for the fencing or are they planting forest for commercial harvesting of timber?

While some of the play may look at women in the nineteenth century through the Lesbian relationship between Mary and Laura, and some at magic and superstition, neither theme receives a full exploration in the version I saw in early June. Anne-Marie Duff soldiers on valiantly with her many asides to the audience appreciated as comments on the events but the whole play is more a melange, like early strip field systems, than a coherent whole.

The final scenes switch to the manor house where Mary is installed as Lady to the Lord and a ball takes place with a celebratory dance of thigh slapping and foot tapping. Richard Hudson's rural fantasy design is exciting and beautifully lit by Paule Constable but the visuals cannot save the day.

The theatre programme listed the play as lasting two hours 55 minutes but the night I saw it, it was half an hour shorter. The last play produced jointly at the National with Headlong was the award winning and memorable People, Places, Things. I fear Common will also be remembered, but for all the wrong reasons. I applaud writers who tackle new and unexplored subjects for their plays and accept that some of these will not succeed but that doesn't mean that they shouldn't try.

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Written by DC Moore
Directed by Jeremy Herrin
Starring: Anne-Marie Duff, Cush Jumbo, Tim McMullan
With: Lois Chimimba, Ian-Lloyd Anderson, Brian Doherty, Trevor Fox, John Dagleish, Edward Wolstenholme, Brian Doherty, Hannah Hutch, Pete Cornish, Peta Cornish, Anna Crichlow, Amy Downham, John O'Dowd, Ian Shaw
Design: Richard Hudson
Lighting Design: Paule Constable
Movement: Joseph Alford
Dance: Sian Williams
Composer: Stephen Warbeck
Sound Design: Ian Dickinson
Puppetry: Laura Cubitt
Fight Director: RC Annie Ltd
Running time: Two hours 25 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 5th August 2017 at the Olivier, Royal National Theatre
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 7th June 2017 performance at the Olivier National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)
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