Wonderfully written by D C Moore and performed at the National Theatre, Common captures beautifully the essence of another world. From costume, designed by Richard Hudson, to the actors' trained dialects, honed in by Charmian Hoare, this play produced from every angle an ambient 19th Century.
What is first most notable is the music in this performance. A recurrent, tribal-like rhythm throughout the play thematised the action well, only changing towards the end when a new main event, so to speak, had taken place. This was matched with a satisfying layer of vocals from the actors. Whilst some vocals were, indeed, off at points, the vast majority of these aided the atmosphere the music created greatly.
What is next notable is the visual aspect of the performance. As I mentioned in my introduction, the costume was utterly sublime, well-tailored and unfalteringly reminiscent of the period. But, it also held a sense of symbolism. For example, the crow feathers in Mary (Anne-Marie Duff)'s hat, wonderfully implicative of her mysticality and performed clairvoyance. This leads me on to the function of the crows themselves. Scattered throughout the play were puppets made by Laura Cubitt. These added a comical and delightful element to the performance. However, in terms of set design, I would note that the crows suspended from the ceiling in the beginning of the performance were quite tacky, with wires on show. This, of course, did not affect the rest of the performance but was not a pleasing sight to walk in to.
The overall set was very minimal, but other effects such as fire, trap doors and the overall performance of the actors kept this from being disruptive. Whilst the idea of having holes and earth on stage was an efficacious one, I felt its execution was ineffective in places. For example, in the Second Act where Mary rises from below the ground. As she simply tore herself from a brown fabric and came out completely clean, the result was messy and took away from the illusion of the performance.
As for lighting and sound, the thunderstorm in the Second Act was most successful. It is so easy to simply hose the stage from above and capture rain, and this is not what the effect in Common. A beautiful image of clouds, and the sounds of thunder, paired with a dimly-lit stage, enabled the mind to wander and imagination to run. This was the same for the fire in the Second Act. The only negative thing I have to say about lighting refers to the use of spotlights. These were largely used to illuminate Mary when she delivered monologues and asides. However, there were moments throughout the First Act when Mary delivered her asides without a spotlight, with other characters present on stage. As the spotlights were not consistent, and Duff did not approach the front of the stage to talk to the audience herself, it was sometimes unclear as to whether she was conversing with the other characters or, indeed, talking to us.
On to characterisation, which was, for the most part, strong and believable. It must be said that I favoured Lois Chimimba's characterisation greatly, both as Young Hannah and as Eggy Tom; however, her death as the latter character was too energetic and unrealistic. Death scenes seem to be the hardest to perform for actors, and this was true of all deaths in this performance, barring that of Laura (Cush Jumbo). Neither underperformed nor exaggerated, as the other deaths were, Jumbo's death scene was highly effective and commendable.
Next, the stage-fighting between the Heron (Trevor Fox) and the Harvest King (John Dagleish). Awkward. Punches were clearly missed and were paired with awkward utterances of pain and anger which need not have been made. I felt it would have been more effective to have had this fight in silence, covered by the music and, perhaps, the deep beat of a drum or a soft scrape of a cymbal - something more dramatic than pitiful winces (and, of course, it would have been more effective to have made the punches...seem like punches). My prayers were answered, however, in a later fight in the Second Act, where the Ensemble ran towards the Lord (Tim McMullan)'s men in gripping slow-motion. I found this moment most entrancing, especially with the clever 'resurrection' of the dead characters to represent more people coming to fight.
Though I have been harsh in these points of focus, I must ingeminate that the characterisation was very good and illusive. It was just perhaps in the odd overdramatic moment where the illusion was lost. Whilst the odd trip up in intonation and delivery did arise, the dialect, too, was mastered well by all actors.
“Otherworldly and entrancing.”
Photography property of National Theatre London.
Credit: Johan Persson.