My Country; a work in progress

In the words of people across the UK and Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy
National Theatre
Curve Theatre, Leicester

Penny Layden (Britannia), Christian Patterson (Cymru) Credit: Sarah Lee
The Company of My Country Credit: Sarah Lee
Seema Bowri (East Midlands) Credit: Sarah Lee

“My policy on cake is pro-having it and pro-eating it”, “far more unites us than divides us”, “Brexit means Brexit".

Flashback to those heady EU referendum days of 2016, and now heard in the National Theatre's verbatim piece My Country: a work in progress, currently touring the UK.

Too soon? As soon as it can be, and the "work in progress" part of the title is more to indicate we are nowhere near the end of this particular experience; it is impressive that this imaginatively crafted, polished piece is on tour less than a year after the result.

Immediately post-referendum, the National Theatre went back to the constituencies of Britain to gather their views, and, using the combined literary and artistic forces of Carol Ann Duffy (writer) and Rufus Norris (director), My Country is a snapshot of a turbulent, still-rumbling British political storm.

Britannia (Penny Layden) calls the meeting of regions to order: Caledonia (Stuart McQuarrie), Cymru (Christian Patterson), South West (Adam Ewan), Northern Ireland (Cavan Clarke), East Midlands (Seema Bowri) and the North East (Laura Elphinstone). Together, they bring the "spirits and hearts" of their respective regions to life, with Britannia voicing the politicians’ words, particularly Layden’s cringingly accurate, headline-seeking Boris Johnson.

A diverse pot pourri of views are represented, straying into territories including bananas, benefits, immigration, integration, Trump, and trust. Duffy weaves poetic threads between them, with Britannia a character desperately trying to keep the disparate voices within regions together.

Differences abound however, with jovial rivalry providing many amusing moments, which contrast with the more sinister expressions along the lines of “they aren’t like us”.

One enjoyable scene sees a shared meal, a Great British picnic and knees-up, and each region proud of its own delicacies (plus a welcome blast of local '70s legends Showaddywaddy for us Leicester folk). Maybe a shade stereotypical at times, this is still imaginatively staged and tongue-in-cheek.

The excellent cast clearly define each of their many voices; a heartbreaking moment is Christian Patterson's plaintive pleas amongst the shouted wars of words: "be happy ... don't argue". The pleas are those of a 13-year-old Welsh boy.

Desks moving from straight line to crescent to cross evoke the twists and turns of opinion and momentum, sometimes in ordered rows, sometimes in chaos.

Some reviewers have bemoaned the fact London or the South East aren't represented as one of the few overall “remainers”. Isn't that just it, though? A key point to emerge in the fall out from 23 June is that elsewhere in the country, voters felt their voices are never heard. The North West and West Midlands are also not represented.

Although the feelings of shock, frustration and bewilderment are clearly voiced, I got little sense of the views of the younger generation when the demographic splits in voting became known, or from those a few months too young to vote but relying on others to vote for their future.

Eighty minutes is clearly not enough to cover the whole of the Brexit behemoth, but as a contribution towards something as British as a Blue Peter time capsule, this is an effective piece doing theatre’s good work of holding a mirror up to society. Parts of the text and sentiments behind them are, surprisingly to me, profoundly moving.

A common theme of Duffy's is to hear "human music", and respect the "sacrament of listening". Britannia's final words before blackout are that we should "seek and search and strive for good leadership". Those in power, and everyone, would be wise to remember this as we stumble forwards on the road to Brexit.

Reviewer: Sally Jack

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