“You are blight and darkness and sin…” Lost village girl Mary comes home to her beloved Laura after a lifetime of sin in “that devil-town London”, but finds – well – that’s the problem. This play by DC Moore, part lesbian Catherine Cookson fantasy, part undead horror slasher, via a Wicker Man of the woods and fields, isn’t actually about much at all. Moore’s central fascination seems to be Mary’s selfishness, but this quickly becomes so farcically exaggerated that we scarcely care about her: indeed, the production’s finest moment is Mary’s lynching by the rest of the village just before the interval, a splendid scene which conjured my full and wholehearted sympathy – just pass me a pitchfork – but sadly this most irritating of characters came back to life for an entirely pointless second act. Moore fails to convey anything interesting about love, incest, being undead, or the social ill of enclosure, which is never properly explained, or functionally connected to the lives of the villagers in a moving way, nor indeed genuinely integrated into the plot. He also appears to claim a world without spirituality, while focusing his plot on real-life resurrection. In short, this is a muddled, missed opportunity of a play, which (by way of zero change) brings a sophisticated character from the metropolis to stir up the lives of ye backward locals, all of whom come from different corners of England, some from more than one, judging by their mobile, inconsistent faux-rural accents. It’s playwriting as if Jerusalem – that mad, brilliant, beautiful paean of Englishness, class and the rural world – just never happened.
Director Jeremy Herrin does a stellar job with DC Moore’s clunky ideas, with wonderful group choreography (did I mention that brilliant lynching?) and decent tension in individual scenes, which momentarily draw us into a few interesting scenarios; the fact we never actually care for those characters is Moore’s fault, not Herrin’s. Nor is it the fault of the actors, who mostly do their best with Moore’s gawky script; fine performances in particular from Trevor Fox as Geordie enforcer Heron, Lois Chimimba doubling a rather dim-witted Eggy Tom with an altogether more interesting Young Hannah, and Brian Doherty as affecting Irish foreman Graham. However, apart from forcing his actors to speak like Yoda every few lines in the name, presumably, of poeticism (“Burn gone this unfine village” – indeed), Moore deploys swearwords like AK47 bullets across his script, wielding them with about as much subtlety and fascinating power as foam arrows. Anne-Marie Duff gets the worst, and filthiest, lines, presumably because Moore is most anxious (rightly) about his failed central character, and consequently takes his shock tactics to the max. But it just alienates Duff’s smug, canny and cold performance all the further from our suspension of disbelief.
Richard Hudson’s set and costumes are stunning, especially the masks for the mischievous villagers, all conjuring creatures from nature made of tendrils, leaves, animal skulls and towering grasses. Paule Constable’s lighting design creates silhouettes and giant shadows to gorgeous effect. And, once we get beyond lynching to disembowelling and cutting people’s hearts out, it all looks deliciously, stickily real. Sadly, however, we just don’t care.
At the National Theatre, SE1 until 5 August
Box office: 020 7452 3000