Brexit is doing weird things to people. For the character in Chris Thorpe’s show Status, it has made him want to reject the idea of nationhood altogether. Travelling the world to get some clarity on what national identity really means, and whether he wants any part in it. Others feel more galvanised.
Marieke Dermul is Belgian, and has brought her show to Summerhall as part of the Big in Belgium programme. For the past eighteen months she has been canvassing opinion across Europe about whether there is such a thing as a continental identity, whether we should have borders, and how do we prevent disaster when so many nations appear to be growing apart.
Her response is to create a piece of popular music that promotes unity in Europe, and to perform it at next year’s Eurovision song contest.
Through a series of video clips, Marieke shows us the people she has met on her journey round the cities of Europe. She has collated the things they said to her, and the music that various people have contributed, and created a song out of it called European Citizen Popsong.
And that’s what the show is about.
At the end, she plays the song to a future Eurovision audience, and invites a few members of the audience to stand in as her band.
But, yeah. That’s basically the show.
Marieke is charming. A little timid, but a very likeable presence on stage. She’s open and warm, and makes the audience comfortable. When she interviews the UK’s entry to last year’s Eurovision song contest, SuRie tells her she has a lovely voice. And she does. She does have a lovely voice.
But as soon as the audience sniffs out that there isn’t a punch line coming, and that Marieke isn’t playing a character, you can feel people shifting in their seats.
Thinking about this show has brought me to the brink of making a generalisation about Brexit. Or Britain, or maybe British audiences. But I have resisted that urge. What I think that that specific audience that I was a part of, couldn’t get their heads around, was not that somebody might be committed to the idea of a united Europe, but that somebody could be so earnest about it.
I was on the Luxembourg-Belgium border recently, and at some points the transition between countries is very subtle. On particular roads the tarmac appears to be smooth and maintained, and then you hit a bump and the road is rough. The distinction between the two countries is not noticeable at checkpoints or border crossings but by the degree to which the highways are maintained.
Living on mainland Europe in that cluster of elite European nations might instil in its population an innate sense of European unity, and if Marieke is from Belgium then maybe she was born with it. But I couldn’t help asking the question of why she was doing this project in the first place. What was it deep inside her that made ‘Europe’ so important to her, and the medium of pop music the best way she could express that?
I’ll be so delighted if she pops up on Eurovision 2019, but she didn’t tell us which nation she would be representing. I suppose it will be Belgium, but how does she feel about that label? Is it a divisive concept that might get in the way of her broader European identity? Or is it her passport to citizenship of an even bigger community?
Not every show about Europe necessarily has to question the notion of identity, but it was the fact these questions – and her answers – were absent, that made the show feel a bit like a stunt without a punchline.
European Citizen Popsong is on until 26 August 2018 at Summerhall. Click here for more details.