National Theatre (Olivier), London SE1
Opened 6 June, 2017

D.C. Moore’s new play begins with a moment of “rough music”: communal noise-making by a bunch of costumed English villagers. We immediately know we’re in a territory where rural myth and ritual inform everyday life, especially when that life is blighted on the one hand by a failed harvest and on the other by imminent enclosure of the village’s common land by the local aristocrat; it is 1809, the height of the Enclosure Acts that changed the legal and physical landscape of England, and the play’s title refers both to this disappearing land and... ah.

Who is this figure in dapper scarlet, delivering something between a prologue and one of Iago’s soliloquies? It is Mary, cast out long ago to suffering in London but also a schooling in how to manipulate folk, now returned to carry away her beloved Laura and for revenge with a capital R. Anne-Marie Duff dominates from the opening minutes, attempting to orchestrate the entire action and keeping up a commentary of asides to the audience. Moore has written the play in a protracted-adjectival-phrase-peculiar-poetical idiom, which is powerful but ear-knotty-often-hard listening. (It’s not quite as Unwinesque as that – indeed, what with a talking crow among the characters, there’s a shade of Ted Hughes to the material.)

As to what the play is about... I’m sorry, I haven’t a baldy notion. The enclosure issue is a looming background, and the rituals of the Harvest King and blood sacrifice for the crops inform much of the action, but I never got a sustained grip on either the moral or motivational compass of the serially death-defying Mary; she seems simply to be bent on fomenting tension and razing the village. Once or twice I felt as if I were watching a folkloric English equivalent of the diabolic Clint Eastwood western High Plains Drifter, perhaps randomly intercut with The Wicker Man.

Jeremy Herrin, artistic director of co-producers Headlong, of course never gives in to muddle, nor does the cast which also includes Cush Jumbo, Tim McMullan and Trevor Fox. However expansive the staging, though, Moore’s material does not similarly expand to fill the Olivier. Perhaps a more modest production in the Dorfman would have helped it feel, literally as well as figuratively, within our grasp.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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