Within the first five or so minutes of
A waste of talent, a waste of a possible point and a waste of anyone's time.
In an age where social media makes the role of a critic questionable, it's still surprising to see the anger people seemed to vomit out about this new play at the National during previews. With so much inexplicable terror in our lives becoming an all too common real occurrence that makes the notion of solidarity the only glimmer of positivity, such vilification for a play that is acceptedly messy and overblown, but inoffensive (other than for its unnecessary use of swearing for sake of impact) in its far too many themes seems astonishing.
So what is all the fuss about? Even for someone like me, who may be accused of ignoring any word count limits in reviews, the main problem is trying to explain exactly what it is supposed to be about as it seems to change its mind and its style every few minutes. The title refers to common land being enfenced at the turn of the 19th century in order that the gentry could command taxes. So that could be the catalyst for presumed-dead woman returning from the devil city London to her female lover (and her incestuous brother), who's also the Queen of the aforementioned ritualistic killing pagans, who are fighting the filicidal Lord of the Manor, who lusts for the presumed-dead woman and so saves her after she's dead. Or not dead. That makes it sound much more linear than it is and I'm not sure if it contains spoilers or if it's even correct. But either way, trust me, you're unlikely to care.
It's as though writer DC Moore was writing a number of different plays that someone picked up and assumed were just one. The changes in plot and style don't seem to be for any purpose or to be linked and so we just stop trying to make sense of it. One minute we have to the menacing scenes akin to The Wicker Man with intestines pulled out of a murdered man, the next we have pantomime mugging to the audience ("Who's this lot out there" and "You know don't you Madame"). And the language uncomfortably shifts between rhyming couplets, overblown prose, sitcom and profanity (after 20 derivations of "fuck" and a "bucket-cunt", there's no further to go). Can one assign a link between style, language and purpose? Possibly. But really, can one be bothered?
There are some fine performances. Anne-Marie Duff as the liar Mary is watchable enough though seems most comfortable when breaking the fourth wall – possibly because she is at least commenting on the shambles rather than being in it for a time. Current National stalwart Lois Chimimba brings the same playfulness to Eggy Tom and Young Hannah as she showed in both Peter Pan and wonder.land. But Cush Jumbo as lover / sister / Pagan Queen seems a wasted talent, doing all she can to put colour and life into a character that has no consistency or believability in its arc. In fact, pulling out any performance seems a little patronising to the actors. I'm sure if they were asked to read the lyrics of a gangsta rap interspersed with a nursery rhyme and a seventies porn script, they would also do a fair job. You just wouldn't want to sit through it for two and half hours.
There are going to be comparisons with Salome – the other 'unusual' piece in rep at the Olivier right now – and the two will no doubt be held up as questions of Rufus Norris' current programming policy. My argument for Salome was that, no matter what else, it offers some huge visual theatrical moments. I find it harder to find an argument here. It's not for an audience to try and assign its initial purpose or point or forgive it for boring us. It's not enough to fill the stage with people wandering off and on as background.. or set... or (at a couple of times) trees. Which goes back to the point of the social media outcry – be annoyed by Salome and debate it, but I find it hard to even care enough about Common to merit it with any sort of passionate opinion. A waste of talent, a waste of a possible point and a waste of anyone's time.