Common is a little like a medieval Midsomer Murders. The new play written by DC Moore opens with disguised villagers taking the matter of common land into their own hands, setting the stage alight as they burn the posts for the planned enclosure; they eventually turn to animalistic murder. All is accompanied by an undercurrent of humour. Surely that’s just the Home Counties on ITV on a Sunday night?
However, it’s more than light entertainment. The tale of Mary, played by the commanding Anne-Marie Duff, and her return to the countryside from her exile in the “hell” of London is reminiscent of a Greek tragedy. Strong, slightly mystical female lead? Check. Incest? Check. Gory deaths? It’s all there.
The set is simple but all the better for it. The barren earthy floor acts not only as a symbol of failed harvest, but proves useful for a village with a penchant for digging and filling graves. There is a great sense of perception in the misty country backdrop; a bleak plain populated by only a church, and later a few leafless trees, it is the perfect canvas for shadows, the unreal, threat.
Common may be based in history and the common land, but it thrives in its exploration of Mary’s reincarnation. Presumed dead after supposedly drowning years before, her Lazarus-like return makes the characters doubt her existence. The theme of reincarnation dominates, with plots and characters weaving together to create something clever, if sometimes a little out of the reach of full audience comprehension. Along with the period costume, an inexplicably talking crow and Duff’s mind reading she could have been mistaken for the next incarnation of Doctor Who. Or should that be The Master?
Nevertheless, Duff thrives as the complicated prodigal daughter, prowling across the stage, ready to spin her web of deceit through mischievous fortune telling. Equally believable in her softer moments, she manages to keep you guessing as to not only her reality, but her morality.
Duff is more than matched by Cush Jumbo, who plays Laura, her step-sister and ex-lover. Jumbo shows tremendous prowess as she darts between hard-nosed farm woman to an unsure, anxious lover, setting us up for one of the many twists.
John Dagleish of Lark Rise to Candleford fame is comfortable as King, Laura and Mary’s brother. Taking on yet another earthy, rural supporting role – he played Autolycus in Kenneth Branagh’s The Winter’s Tale in 2015 – Dagleish seems to have fallen victim to some heavy-handed typecasting. But after all that practice he certainly knows how to work a hoe, and puts in a commendable performance as the incest-tortured farmer.
Many of the highlights come from Lois Chimimba, who plays both Eggy Tom and Hannah. Chimimba makes the role of village idiot her own, demonstrating not only faultless comic timing, but an ability to shine next to acting royalty Duff. There is a palpable inner sigh of relief from the audience when she comes on stage.
Tragedy, historical drama, psychological thriller, and dare I say soap, Common is a jam-packed two hours, and far from predictable. While there may be a level of meaning too many hiding in there, it is well worth a trip down to the South Bank this summer. Far better than a rerun of DCI John Barnaby.
Common plays National Theatre until August 5.
Photo: Johan Persson