Jun 2, 2017blog, review

Common - NT's new epic stays firmly stuck to the ground

The star occupant of the NT’s Olivier Theatre for the next few months is Common, a co-production with the lauded Headlong Theatre which bills itself as “an epic tale of England’s lost land”.

The main thrust of the plot is a brewing class war over the impending Enclosure Act, which will take away the remaining common land and restrict its use to owners. Against this setting, Anne-Marie Duff’s Mary returns to the rural land of her birth, where everyone thinks her long-dead.

It's a shame that Common decides to pursue the path of a cheap Game of Thrones knock-off

It quickly turns out she’s been married and come by a fortune, and wastes no time turning the delicate standoff between the villagers and their lord to her own benefit, with both of her adoptive siblings paying a price for her unexpected return.

There is a kernel of a good idea here. The world of Common is facing down the maw of the industrial revolution. It hints at interesting, under-explored social issues around race, sexuality and gender that have no shortage of dramatic potential, and even underscore the modern issues of a post-Brexit UK. They’re a fine basis for a play.

Given that pedigree, it’s a shame that Common decides to pursue the path of a cheap Game of Thrones knock-off. It keeps the pedestrian violence, toxic relationships and sexual misbehaviour but dispenses with the intrigue and delicate world-building that made that series so compelling.

And injects a talking crow, for some reason.

Anne-Marie Duff in rehearsals for Common. Photo: Johann Persson

There are good bits: when the villagers get their pagan masks out in order to go marauding and sacrificing, it’s genuinely creepy, especially when they turn their rage toward a familiar face at the conclusion of the play’s first half. But these moments are few and far between.

Even after the war between the villagers and the manor turns deadly, and the plot should be driving toward the promised ambitious finale, Common remains hamstrung, faltering between subplots and continuing to realign characters’ allegiances seemingly on a whim.

Tim McMullan’s haughty lord of the manor seethes with privilege, and gets a few good speeches in early on - blood running through the land and so forth. A few awkward scene transitions later, he’s devolved into nothing more than a weak foil to Mary.

Despite embodying yet another incarnation of the tired old “depraved bisexual” cliche, Anne-Marie Duff’s character is the best part of Common. That said, even her constant scheming leaves the audience unsympathetic and confused about who we should be rooting for, if anyone.

Common is a tone-deaf, scrabbling attempt at an epic play, but its characters are so poorly imagined and the main action so disjointed that it falls face-first into the mud. There’s a quarter of a good play here, and represents a rare misstep for Headlong.