On the first day of rehearsals for Common, the company gathers for a readthrough in Rehearsal Room 2 at the National Theatre. Fifteen actors, along with members of our creative team and stage management, sit in a circle and, together, we read the entire play. It’s a revelation to hear it lift off the page for the first time after several months of pre-production work. Richard Hudson then guides us through the intricacies of the model box for his design. This play is full of striking images and we’ll spend as much time discussing these as we will anatomising the truths (and falsehoods) we discover about the characters themselves. In addition, we’ve adorned one of the rehearsal room walls with an eclectic tapestry of paintings, photographs, maps, and quotations, encompassing a vast spectrum of references to navigate the social and political landscape of rural England in 1809.
Midway through this first week, we are joined by two historians: Professor Julian Hoppit from University College London and Professor Andy Wood from Durham University. Julian begins by explaining that the onset of the Industrial Revolution, which is so central to DC Moore’s play, was neither anticipated nor understood as it was actually happening. However it marks a turning point in British history, which saw a huge influx of the rural working class to the major cities. In fact, as Julian noted, London had doubled in size in the course of the eighteenth century: by the time the first census was taken, in 1801, it was home to one million people. To put this figure in context, Britain’s second largest city was Manchester, which was home to ninety thousand. The process of industrialisation relied upon steam power, which relied upon coal, which, of course, was found outside of the capital. In addition to rising food prices in the 1790s – which meant the enclosure of the common land was seen as a promising investment – those in positions of power and influence soon started to turn their attentions to the countryside.
Andy’s session focuses upon the history of English folklore and magic. He begins by revealing that local law and, by extension, custom, was based on the principle, “Time whereof the memory of Man is not to the contrary”, or, in other words, that local custom extended to “beyond living memory”, passed down in the same way as language or storytelling is. As such, the oral tradition, as a bearer of memory, is crucial. And, in spite of seismic changes in science and technology, belief in the folkloric traditions of England’s rural past was prevalent. We learn of Hickathrift, a Norfolk giant who beats the local lord to return his land to the common people, as well as tales of demonic possession and witchcraft, which persist throughout the nineteenth century. In 1809, the characters in our play still lived in a magical world; and that was much less fun than it might initially sound. It was a world that teemed with fairies, ghosts, goblins, and spirits, some of which were inclined to interfere within human affairs. There was also a constant tension between the Christian and pagan traditions – both of which extend beyond living memory.
We begin to excavate the text of the play itself, reading through and meticulously questioning anything that’s not immediately obvious to a twenty-first century ear in an attempt to bring clarity and precision to the production. As part of this process, Jeremy Herrin divides the cast up and those characters with an especially close relationship to one another are given the opportunity to get to grips with their respective backstories. In doing so, we try to locate ourselves emotionally, as well as politically, within the world that DC Moore has conjured so vividly into life in the pages of the script.