Common, National Theatre, Olivier Stage 31/05/17

I went into this on the strength of the poster, Anne-Marie Duff’s casting and the vague promise of the examination of a period of history and setting that we don’t normally get to see. I hadn’t even looked at the projected running time. Good lord that was a mistake.

It started with Anne-Marie Duff’s self-described rogue directly addressing the audience, promising tall tales and bawdy jokes that couldn’t be relied upon for veracity, for she always lies. Well, that prologue certainly lied about the rest of the play. Fairly soon, a funny, promising start of a woman going back home to confront her past in horrendously poor rural England at the time of the fencing off of common land (see title) settled into a general tangled, ill-thought out and badly expressed turgidity. The stage was covered in earth, with occasional holes dug in it to bury things or uncover graves, while people droned on in an attempt to talk about a plot of revenge and violence, attempted murder and lying about the past and old lovers. Sometimes we got a funny aside to the audience, but these were buried in the overwhelming oppressive weight of dank soil and a blasted heath of an echoing stage. Even the habitual appearances of burning torches and peasants in Wicker Man masks that I think were meant to add to the general atmosphere of rural deprivation and buried past sins you couldn’t escape from didn’t liven it up for more than a few minutes at a time, because the second they left the stage, we were back with the sweary incomprehensible droning. After what seemed a fairly final note of violence after an hour and a half, the lights went up and the audience blinked, looked around in confusion and then winced on realising that was only the first half. ‘How long does this thing go on for?’ echoed around.

In the second half, the plot went on, transferring most of the action to the local lord’s house, but nothing more was said. Nothing was added that cast any light or consequence to the mood and actions of the first half. You could see the audience looking around to notice that nearly a third of their peers had escaped at the interval, and really wishing they’d joined them, because it was just dragging on with no hope of a resolution or any sort of respite in sight.

I think the only members of the production that could really escape with any dignity were the production and lighting designers for so successfully conjuring up a barren oppressive heath of flickering shadows and torchlight. The actors did their best, but were clearly struggling with the script they’d been lumbered with, and I don’t understand how no-one noticed in rehearsals and development that the running time and script needed attacking with a scythe.

(ETA:  this was 2nd preview, apparently it got severely cut after)


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