Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh – until 13 May 2017
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
My Country – A Work In Progress, the National Theatre of Great Britain’s touring response to the Brexit vote, may very well have its heart in the right place. Unfortunately, it is difficult to tell from the ill-conceived, badly put together, charmless result.
The NT’s artistic director Rufus Norris and Poet Laureate Carol Anne Duffy have constructed this response to the EU referendum vote based on interviews with people across the UK. Their words are spoken by actors representing different ‘regions’, presided over by a Britannia figure. The whole thing is presented as an exercise in ‘listening’, with Britannia exhorting the audience to do exactly that. Sad to report, then, that there is little here worth listening to. Shorn of context, the speeches seem ill-considered and sadly predictable, ranging from the half-thought-out to the downright prejudiced, with all of the vital importance of TV news vox pops.
The authenticity and power that verbatim theatre can provide are here replaced by clumsy artifice, with the presentation of the words tending to caricature. When we hear some of the original speakers later on, they are far from the over-emphatic straining for laughs the cast employs – presumably in an attempt to inject some energy into proceedings.
Seema Bowri, Cavan Clarke, Adam Ewan, Laura Elphinstone, Penny Layden, Stuart McQuarrie and Christian Patterson certainly cannot be faulted for effort or conviction; it is not their fault they are sailing on a rudderless ship.
What is a complete surprise, since Duffy’s name is attached to proceedings, is the lack of poetry. Britannia’s addresses to the audience are trite and ill-judged – who has ever taken ‘feisty’ as a compliment? The only affecting moment in the evening comes from the words of the late Jo Cox.
The use of other politicians’ words is markedly less successful. While Layden’s imitations of various public figures are extremely good – notably her Boris Johnson – they are out of place. Quite frankly, Nigel Farage has had enough publicity without popping up here.
The skewing of the text towards Leave voters is probably an attempt to reflect the result, but highlights one of the biggest faults of the whole project. The creators, aware of their positions, try hard to be neutral and non-judgemental; but the best political theatre nails its colours to the mast and engages you, or dares you to disagree.
Simply by selecting and presenting different views you are making value judgements, so you might as well be open about it. This production is reminiscent of several works that popped up on the Fringe in 2014 that ‘really weren’t about the referendum’ or ‘didn’t take sides’ and were all the blander for it.
Not having the courage of its convictions is not the worst thing about this, however. You do not need to be a rabid Nationalist to question the presentation of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as ‘regions’. There are vast sections of the population conspicuous by their absence – notably recent arrivals from the EU, who are constantly attacked but have no answer.
Strangest of all is the complete lack of voices from London and the South-East of England. It cannot be because of the high Remain vote there, as that could equally apply to Scotland. It may be unintentional, but it seems as if that area considers itself above it all, sitting in judgement like that bizarrely chosen figure of Britannia, distilling the opinions of the wretched provincials and sending them back out to us on tour from London in the form of jolly stereotypes.
If any of this works, it is as a reflection of political debate in the era of echo-chamber politics and ‘below-the-line’ comments on news websites, in that people with nothing to say are saying it anyway, with everything cut and dried and inconvenient opinions ignored.
Maybe this is an absurdist piece about the futility of communication in the tradition of Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano. But a comedy would need better jokes than the supposed rib-ticklers here – Scots drink whisky and eat haggis, the Welsh like Shirley Bassey, stick some music on and the Irish will automatically do Riverdance.
The conflicts and contradictions of a fractured post-referendum UK are only represented by a play that comes far too late to be of any use but still seems thrown together, and despite being terribly short for a full-scale touring production seems very long.
That the resources of the UK National Theatre are behind this is one of the most dispiriting things about this limp and patronising farrago. The efforts of the cast could justify a second star; there is little else here deserving of one.