You’d be forgiven for thinking that a play about Brexit – before Article 50 has even been triggered – is over-egging the pudding. More gnarling, perhaps, that My Country; a work in progress – the brainchild of Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and the National Theatre’s artistic director Rufus Norris – is a compilation of verbatim testimonials of the British electorate – before, during and after 23 June last year. But the play, currently showing at the National Theatre in London before a nationwide tour, presents Brexit in an entirely new and much needed light: through the themes of fear, belonging, understanding and misunderstanding.
Seven actors take the stage, introduced by Penny Layden playing Britannia. Each part, Layden tells her fellow cast members, represents “the spirits and heart of your regions… you’re the voice of your people”. And so it is that the audience finds itself presented with the viewpoints of Britannia, Caledonia, Northern Ireland, Cymru, North East England, South West England and the East Midlands. The testimonials display gentle teasing, affectionate mockery, and basic stereotyping, alongside passion, anger and fear, making the content both light and poignant at the same time.
The acting is absolutely brilliant and the actors – including Seema Bowri, Cavan Clarke and Stuart McQuarrie – are successfully provocative without imposing assumptions on the various personalities that they voice. By the end, we come to realise that the voice of the disenchanted is both angered and uniform. And that is because we, the audience, has listened.
The theme of listening (or the “sacrament of listening”, as Britannia calls it) is omnipresent throughout. It is self-consciously fed to the audience from beginning to end. With listening comes those that aren’t listened to, and the despair, the displeasure and the dismay of the British people is portrayed both through rage (“no Christian churches are allowed in Saudi Arabia, but here, they’re allowed mosques”) and through humour (“politicians want people to work until they’re 65 and then die as quickly as possible!”).
The set is as naked as the testimonials are rich. It is all too easy to over-analyse the symbolism of a simple set – but let us not forget that My Country is born of Duffy and Norris, and as such it is likely that the desolate set, which takes the form of a town hall, is designed to visually juxtapose the complexity of the testimonials. There are, therefore, no obstacles between the voices of the people and the audience. There are no distractions to interfere with the audience listening.
All testimonials are cleverly woven together by Carol Ann Duffy, who injects her poetry at moments of high tension. Compiling and structuring the electorate’s opinions must have been a phenomenally time-consuming task – but not a second of it is wasted here. If, on occasion, opinions seem repetitive, Duffy’s poetry is beautifully planted to remind the audience of the wonders of modern Britain: “I am your memory, your dialects, your cathedrals, your mosques and your markets.”
My Country shrewdly captures the mindset of the British people. If it has one fault, it is that the Remain voice is more-or-less suffocated by the wrath of Leave – but then again, that is how the referendum played out: the narrative is true to fact. The play is touching, human, and leaves the audience feeling uplifted by the togetherness of the British nation, despite the division that we feared might tear us asunder.
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My Country; a work in progress is showing at the National Theatre, London until 22 March 2017.