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BWW Review: COMMON, National Theatre

It's entirely possible that there will one day be a fascinating Heart of Darkness-esque documentary about the making of Common. We can only hope, because the creation of something so extraordinary, so wilfully bewildering, on the National's biggest stage is surely a story worth telling.

This is a work that basically defies summary, but here we go... Set against the backdrop of enclosure in rural England at the turn of the 19th century - wealthy landowners forcibly fencing off common land and turning independent farmers into low-paid day labourers - it's a roiling, sprawling tale about an exiled woman returning to seek revenge, an incestuous love triangle, rebellion, rebirth, dead animals, a talking crow, and a Pagan Wicker Man murder gang.

DC Moore certainly doesn't lack for ambition. This is no dry history play: there's rampant fourth wall-breaking, anachronistic quips, supernatural tangents, genuinely surprising plot twists, and enough expletives to make you wonder if Malcolm Tucker acted as script consultant. The problem is that his series of striking moments doesn't remotely hang together in Jeremy Herrin's fitful production, and its strangeness undercuts both personal and political strands.

It's hard to get too invested in the central plot - the kind of overly fecund rural melodrama Stella Gibbons skewered in Cold Comfort Farm - when its players wander in and out of focus, and the enclosure backdrop remains frustratingly elusive. Thematically, it should be all too resonant: privatisation and destruction of community, the harsh side effects of change and modernisation, a simmering populist revolution, anger of the dispossessed turned on unwanted migrants - in this case Irish.

But Moore's text darts around too much to get a grasp on any of these, and his language is a rich, loamy poetry that lures you in with a beautifully crafted phrase and then leaves you stranded in the bog. Similarly, the cast sometimes looks lost on the vast Olivier stage, wandering Richard Hudson's barren earth. More effective is Stephen Warbeck's percussive musical accompaniment and the painterly, expressive sky (via gorgeous lighting from Paule Constable), supplying the kind of primal power that just eludes Moore's grasp.

Anne-Marie Duff is a swaggering, larger-than-life heroine, a picaresque adventurer who schemes, bewitches, seduces and when all else fails fights tooth and claw to get her way. There's a fortune-telling scam that possibly evolves into genuine mysticism (part of the piece's unfocussed paean to 'the old ways'), and she interestingly transcends this sharply demarcated world: from working- to upper-class, sexually fluid, a woman with a man's power.

She dismisses accusations of whoredom - how else could she survive in an uncaring London? - and turns victimhood into vengeance. Her dream is the "new dance" of America with lover Laura, but it's hard to tell how much this teller of tall tales believes her own fantasy.

Cush Jumbo is more than a match for her as the fiery Laura, but underserved by the piece - at times uncomfortably complicit in her brother's incestuous lust, or at least not given the space to explore that emotional complexity. And John Dagleish seems like bizarrely counter-intuitive casting as said brother: the Harvest King, the bloody leader of men who jealously beat Mary and hurled her into a river. Dagleish feels far more likely to croon about his feelings than violently act on them.

There's good support from the ever-sardonic Tim McMullan as a casually superior aristocrat, Trevor Fox as his gruff right-hand man, and Lois Chiminba as a lost youth. But despite the lust, horror and, er, visceral spilling of guts, it's not as engaging as it should be, and, though it shed half an hour off its original three-hour running time in previews, far too unwieldy. Following Salome, it's another intriguing but messy Olivier misfire.

Common at the National Theatre until 5 August

Photo credit: Johan Persson

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