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Unseasonal turkey
July/August 2017

Melancholy moments mixed with  giddy joy: Danny Mac and Siena Kelly in “On The Town” (©Johan Persson)

The National under Rufus Norris is a curious beast. If Nicholas Hytner erred on the side of running the great behemoth of British dramas as a large rep company, based on developing talents such as Rory Kinnear, Alex Jennings and Simon Russell Beale, Norris got the job on the basis that the National needed to do more to attract new talent and new writing — and redress some concerns about alpha males hogging the limelight. Norris has tried to broaden the National’s base (though the audience still looks heavily slanted to retired schoolteachers).

The record after two and a half years is mixed. He has had flops like Wonderland, the musical he oversaw with Damon Albarn and Moira Buffini, but also an unexpected hit with Duncan Macmillan’s powerful study of addiction and mental illness, People, Places & Things. And the consistently classy Haydn Gwynne was nominated for an Olivier for her gleefully awful incarnation as Mrs Peachum in a riotous Threepenny Opera last year.

If there is consistency to the detractors’ case, it is that the ideas put on stage are a bit student-union and the productions uneven. Common, the main stage offering for the summer, is a case in point. Co-produced with Headlong (Norris is giving opportunities to many excellent theatre companies outside the main houses), directed by Jeremy Herrin (a Norris favourite) and written by D.C. Moore, it is a story inspired by Enclosure, the process begun at the beginning of the 17th century to enclose common land for private use and which, by the time the play is set — around 1800 — was gobbling up commons and open spaces.

The central figure is Mary (Anne-Marie Duff), a rackety version of Becky Sharp, who at the start of the play is returning from a life of vice in London to her roots in an unspecified English backwater in the “runt-small country”.  She has come on an errand to rescue Laura (Cush Jumbo) from the incestuous clutches of her oppressive brother (John Dalgleish), who believes he has had Mary drowned. So far, so very Restoration theatre, in the interleaving of plots and passions. All that would be fine if the play had a clue what it is trying to say about Enclosure. Apart from the obvious — “sad, unmarried side-effects to change”, a bit of sour carping about Brexit analogies and a general assumption that anything to do with advancing the interests of capitalism must be very bad indeed — it does not.

So poor Anne-Marie Duff, with her wonderfully deep-timbred voice, has acquired a starring role as a bewitching adventuress, only to find herself stuck in an incomprehensible plot and with screeds of cod olde English to read — which makes her sound a bit like Hagrid in Harry Potter. The play is written in adjectival idiom, interspersed with 21st-century profanities — entertaining at first, but a bit wearing. Herrin’s direction, usually assured, comes a cropper, so much so that by the middle of the second act we had long forgotten what the play was about, beyond bizarre coincidences and scary Harvest Kings engaging in sadistic revenge against those who went along with Enclosure. All that said, Duff and Jumbo are hard workers who bring a doomed intensity to their Sapphic attraction, but the whole thing teeters between a Sarah Waters-style lesbian revenge saga and a didactic play that sets up its premise, but is unable to follow it through.
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