Common is about a woman outcast from the smoke of London who finally returns to her roots – a piece of land struggling against the tide of enclosure. Her first intention is to save her lost love, Laura (played brilliantly by Cush Jumbo), from a future in a ‘factory coffin’ – a fear that comes from the real displacement of peasants off the land and into cities during the Industrial Revolution. Leaving London, Mary looked back on the chimneys and smoke ‘and saw hell’.
Home, however, doesn’t seem much better. In fact, the common in Common is a confusing and dark fray, with peasants pitted against the landowners, Christians against pagans and even English against Irish. There’s a blight. And there’s sickness. The result is a play that asks ‘why bother with this land?’ instead of one that should be demanding ‘whose is it?’ Though Common is ambitious in all its themes from the outset, it avoids looking enclosure straight in the eye.
What was enclosure? It was the transformation of land available for local people – ‘commoners’ – from something they could hunt on, gather wood on, reap and sow again, to something completely out of their reach. Private landowners enclosed portions of common land in a movement that started slowly in medieval times, but accelerated with zeal during the 19th century. ‘Much of England was still open in 1700 but most of it was closed by 1840,’ says Professor Neeson, commoners expert, in the programme. Though never mentioned in the play, enclosure was also the model that Britain was exporting across its Empire.
Enclosure increased the agricultural productivity of the land and, in many ways, was the geographical manifestation of Victorian capitalism. At a local level, however, rights for many commoners were transferred to those few with whom the British hold a peculiar respect – landlords. In fact, Tim McMullan, who plays the landowner baddie, declares he is ‘godlike’ to the crowd, as he carries on enclosing. That is, before Mary seduces him to halt the project, then encourages to him to start again to spite her friends. Confusing, indeed.
It becomes clear that Mary (brought to life by an enthralling Anne Marie Duff) is the play’s true agent of change. She is the trickster, the type of mischievous antihero that revels in confusion and playful deceit. Tricksters are often characterised by crows and ravens in fables and – thanks to some effective puppeteering – such birds are key to the performance. The trickster can also have strange powers, and Mary has a gift of moving between social classes as she pleases (a power not available to the other commoners) and for resurrecting herself more than once. It is undeniably exciting to see such elements in a female protagonist. That being said, tricksters usually get their comeuppance – a fall from grace for trying to play God. The fact that she profits the most from the situation seems a hollow victory for the rise of individualism, albeit a self-aware one.
Though she is the centre of this vortex, and by far the most fascinating part of Common, Mary is ultimately its downfall. Her confusing relationship with the other characters, and her flip-flopping intentions, distract from the more fundamental tussle going on in the background: that between private and public. Amid the uncertainty of Brexit, which has thrown the question of land use back into the fore, as well as the continued erosion of public spaces across the country, DC Moore succeeds in shining a light on an undervisited and crucial chapter of British history. It’s a shame it is not a clearer, brighter one.