On June 24, 2016, as the results of the EU referendum began pouring in, my colleagues and I were watching our computer screens in a newsroom in Singapore with morbid fascination and sickening dread. The percentages sank – 51%, 50%, 49% – as did our stomachs. Our more utilitarian fellow citizens made a point of swarming currency exchange outlets in the central business district to change their strong Singapore dollars for the plummeting pound sterling; money changers shuttered and refused to sell any of their reserves.
The fallout that filtered through to our side of the world, a former British colony no less, left us baffled. Had the majority of UK residents understood what they were voting for? Did David Cameron just up and quit, humming a merry tune at his final press conference? Who was going to steer the UK out of this mess? And yet much of it also sounded familiar, overlapping with socio-political sentiments felt halfway around the world: the anti-immigration rhetoric, the promise of jobs and healthcare, the affluent island nation wary of its neighbours.
My Country; A Work in Progress is the National Theatre’s first attempt at dealing bluntly with the reverberations of Brexit and the country’s spectrum of responses to the referendum, and there’s a brevity to it that reflects, possibly, the haste with which this piece seems to have been put together. It’s an ambitious title – My Country – one that attempts to speak for all of the UK through its vox populi, and perhaps it isn’t surprising that the 75-minute result is a selection of highlights rather than a textured interrogation of the whole.
The hardworking cast of seven, suited and suitcased, embody and personify seven regions in the UK, playing up the accents, the archetypes, and the cultural quirks: Caledonia (Stuart McQuarrie), the North East (Laura Elphinstone), Northern Ireland (Cavan Clarke), Cymru (Christian Patterson), the East Midlands (Seema Bowri), the South West (Adam Ewan), and Westminster, the seat of power, Britannia herself (Penny Layden; she’s affectionately referred to by the other regions as Britney). Britannia has convened her various regions to observe the vote and to speak on behalf of their people against a backdrop of desks and ballot boxes. But by divvying up the country according to its geography and relying on the stereotypes that go with them, this theatrical United Kingdom predictably remains a Divided one.
A team of ten from the National Theatre gathered interviews with residents from across the country, aged 9 to 97, which were then knitted together by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and director Rufus Norris. Excerpts of these interviews are presented, by the personifications of these seven regions, as collections of pithy quotes: “If you’re going to export bombs, you’re going to import people,” declares a resident of Wales; Boris Johnson’s “the EU would be a lobster” speech gets a gleeful impersonation. The interviews have been judiciously edited to reflect a range of responses, with both Leave and Remain camps rubbing up against each other. The conversation moves through a selection of topics: childhood memory, nostalgia for a pastoral history, class privilege, welfare and benefits, geographical boundaries, those who are suspicious of immigrants and others who are more compassionate – the piece is at its best with these intimate verbatim interviews, with Duffy and Norris sustaining their blend of playfulness and pathos. The digestible soundbites are crowd-pleasing, accompanied with laughter and recognition, but they also make it hard to see My Country as more than a compilation of quotable quotes, the sentiments of which have already been paraded endlessly through the news.
My Country wants desperately to speak for the universal and the personal at the same time – the play’s subtitle, A Work in Progress, acknowledges the impossible goal it has set for itself. Halfway through the show, each of the seven regions wheels out a buffet of local foods. It’s an easy gimmick: a Talisker single malt from the Scots; Geordie pizza from the North East. It strikes me that My Country is an amuse bouche of a political documentary, one that summarises the UK’s complex diversity without getting its hands too dirty in the trenches that drive it apart.
My Country; A Work in Progress is on at the National Theatre until 22nd March 2017, followed by a national tour. Click here for more details.