Theatre Royal Stratford East, London – until 24 June 2017
After 52% of 72% of the British voting population voted to leave the EU, Rufus Norris’s concern that London theatre was out of touch with the majority of British people drove him to launch a nationwide project of listening. He sent a team of ‘gatherers’ to all corners of these sceptered isles, and they collected 70 interviews from people up and down the country. The transcriptions combined with text by Carol Ann Duffy gave birth to My Country; a work in progress.
Unfortunately, it’s a pretty terrible piece of theatre. The primarily verbatim script is the worst of racist Brexit voters pontificating on political issues interspersed with extracts of speeches by the likes of Michael Gove, Boris, David Cameron and Nigel Farage. It relies heavily on regional stereotypes and superficial slapstick to reinforce preconceptions rather than challenge them. More of a documentary or extended news report, the structure quickly becomes static and repetitive. There is some pretty poetry that theatrically lifts it, but there’s too little of this to provide much relief.
The piece patronises both audience and the interviewees – it reduces the former into passive school children who are repeatedly told to listen, and the latter into political soundbites with little personality. Additionally, it lumps the interviewees into regions that are each represented by a single performer. Though the audience meets numerous people, it learns little about them as individuals and the UK’s regions are reduced to stereotypes that bicker with each other. – and some aren’t represented at all. Where is London? The northwest? The East? Whilst there is truth in stereotypes, the production does nothing to break them and foster deeper understanding of the differences currently dividing the country.
The performances are good even though the actors have little to work with. It is far from representing the actual diversity in this country – there is one BAME actor, and a BSL interpreter, but no one disabled, elderly, or trans in the company. The production is visually sparse, so all we can do is what we’re asked – listen. But at the end of 80 minutes, I am no more enlightened about racist Brexiteers than when I entered the theatre, and I am frustrated from seeing a shallow play that never really justified its existence.