Wednesday 7 June 2017

Common at the National, or, Perhaps They Could Try Playing It For Laughs?

Note: This is a review of the performance on Monday 5th June 2017. The press night took place last night (Tues 6th June 2017).

On paper this new commission had promise. I loved D C Moore's The Swan, staged a few years back in the Paintframe, and Anne-Marie Duff is a very fine actress. Sadly, that promise is not fulfilled.

The principle problem with this show is Moore's text. It is both elaborately over-written and plagued by mangling of word order – one spends a fair bit of time trying to work out what people are actually saying. It rarely achieves naturalness in delivery, despite some of the acting talent involved. Quite often it comes across as just plain silly (did nobody query the name Eggy Tom during the production process?). In itself, the text, much of the time, simply fails to work as dramatic language.

Moore also resorts to the refuge of swearing - “fuck” and “fucking” are applied with monotonous regularity, and there's a particularly wearisome moment near the beginning when Anne-Marie Duff talks about “cunt” to the audience, delivered as if to suggest that the use of the term on the Olivier stage is somehow shocking. It really isn't, and if Moore and/or director Jeremy Herrin are under the delusion that it is they really haven't been paying attention.

Then there are the questions of structure, characters and themes. The advanced publicity gives the impression that the play is concerned with the battle over the decision to enclose the common land in the 19th century – but it fails to illuminate the debate behind this, or to make this viewer at least care about the issue. Possibly, it is actually supposed to be about Mary (Anne-Marie Duff) and her attempt to recover her lost lover (and, I think, step-sister) Laura (Cush Jumbo). But this relationship, as with pretty much all the others in the show, just never finds real emotional conviction. It might be about Mary as a trickster devil-like figure – this is certainly the idea that comes most to the fore in the latter stages – but by then what story there is has been overtaken by other problems which we'll come on to. There are also problems with the balance between exposition and action. In Act One the play spends an awful lot of time describing things to us – usually accompanied by knowing nods to the presence of the audience – though again Moore's intentions with this never become clear. The viewer is presumably meant to find a connection between description of motives and actions which, eventually, follow – but too often this connection breaks down.

And then there's Act Two, where things just become bizarre. Dead characters are resurrected (Mary indeed seems to go through this process at least three times – though one of those is only described). The trouble with this is that the play has never really established a supernatural environment, or hinted sufficiently at Mary possessing power to do this, to make it convincing.

But the bigger problem here is I suspect a consequence of what appear to have been drastic cuts during previews – reducing the advertised running time by half an hour. I can't blame them for trying this, but I'm afraid the result is a bit of a mess – coherency of narrative pretty completely breaks down, deaths become unintentionally (presumably) laughable and the final scene – who knows?! The underlying dramatic connections seem to have been cut along with chunks of the text.

The ensemble stranded with this text strive to give it life. Anne-Marie Duff has great presence and tries valiantly to engage the audience. Tim McMullan's Lord is an interesting piece of character work. Lois Chimimba morphs impressively between Eggy Tom and Hannah the Scottish maid (don't ask me why she's Scottish). Nobody in the cast can be faulted for lack of commitment. But, in the end, the text fails them all.

Jeremy Herrin's production (assisted by Paule Constable's lighting and Joseph Alford's movement) has some fine visual moments particularly with the crowd movement – indeed the opening burning of fences is arguably the best part of the whole evening. But the animatronic crow – such a heavy feature of the pre-publicity – would have been much better cut – and when one notices the number of times the revolve revolves, or furniture rises and falls from inside it, it is a sign things have gone awry. Again, it isn't really his fault but that of the text.

Some in the audience jumped ship at the interval. I can't blame them. I stuck it out stubbornly to the end – I found it became more bearable if treated as an exercise in absurdity. Indeed, I can't help feeling that the solution might be to abandon the fiction that this is effective serious drama and instead play it for laughs – I've a feeling that done like that it could actually be quite funny. In the absence of such a revolution and despite the presence of Anne-Marie Duff I'm afraid this is another National show to avoid.

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