My Country; A Work in Progress.
10 March 2017
Created from listening to the people of Britain, My Country is one of the first responses from the National to the vote to leave the European Union. There is a danger with verbatim theatre that I have seen far too often, in that, although the words and memories of people are urgent and interesting, the plays suit radio much more than the live stage. Those fears are unfounded here, as Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy has shaped the material effectively into a coherent and highly enjoyable structure. Her conceit is that Britannia has convened a meeting of her constituent parts- Cymru, Caledonia, East Midlands, South-West, Northern Ireland, and North East- to discuss the Brexit vote. And what makes this production work so well is the simple, yet highly effective, theatricality that director Rufus Norris has weaved into the production.
The ensemble, Seema Bowri, Cavan Clarke, Laura Elphinstone, Adam Ewan, Penny Layden, Stuart McQuarrie and Christian Patterson, are extraordinary, perfectly capturing the speech patterns and rhythms of their region, reflecting the diverse personality of the UK. In particular, Penny Layden is brilliant not just as Britannia, (Britney to the other members); her plumed helmet sticking cheerfully out of her bag, but, as the region containing Westminster, represents politicians to jaw-dropping effete. Her Boris needs no introduction, her Farage frighteningly accurate, and her Gove slimes all over the stage.
How you connect to the piece may also be influenced by your region of the UK. Brought up just a few miles from Merthyr, I recognised everything about Cymru, the wonderful Christian Patterson taking me right back to the Valleys, capturing perfectly the speech and thoughts of Wales, in particular, a 13-year-old boy, fearful for the future, upset when the other regions begin arguing. There is a glorious party scene where the regions make fun and indulge in stereotypes of the constituent parts, including the bagpipes, Riverdance, and Cymru channelling a fierce Bassey!
The evening develops into arguments and themes we heard throughout the vote and now in its aftermath- immigration, funding, fear of the Other, a sense of injustice of benefits distributed to immigrants sits alongside shame at the naked racism the vote has exposed. At a running time of 75 minutes, the piece feels a little slight, and by representing all sides of the argument, it’s not going to change any minds regarding the outcome of the vote, and, in fairness, the piece is not aiming to do that. This is a reflective play, asking us, the audience, to simply listen. Yet when we hear Farage talking about “winning without a single bullet being fired”, just eight days after the murder of Jo Cox, the production could have been sharper and angrier.
Yet this doesn’t detract from a highly entertaining show that, if I am, to be honest, was much better than I expected, mainly down to the superb cast and direction. One of the best elements of the evening was us, the audience, the British, still laughing at ourselves and appreciating the irony of the lies politicians speak and the truths people live. It made me feel strangely patriotic. The great Brexit plays are yet to come, as we don’t know our future yet, but, taking note of the subtitle, this work in progress is an excellent conversation starter. Don’t miss it when it performs in your region.