My Country; a work in progress

  • Verbatim Theatre
  • Written by people across the UK and Carol Ann Duffy
  • Directed by Rufus Norris
  • Cast: Seema Bowri, Cavan Clarke, Laura Elphinstone, Adam Ewan, Penny Layden, Stuart McQuarrie, Christian Patterson
  • National Theatre, London
  • Until 22nd March 2017
  • Review by Aleksandra Sakowska
  • 11 March 2017
My Country; a work in progress
4.0Reviewer's Rating

My Country; a work in progress  is a verbatim work, compiled from numerous interviews conducted in towns across the UK in the wake of the June 2016 referendum. It is an ambitious project at the heart of which is an attempt to hear different voices for and against Brexit. It is neither a fully-fledged production nor a developed piece of new writing. It is something entirely different and quite hard to pinpoint, somehow old-fashioned despite broaching current events. In my view My Country can be considered a modern version of the now largely forgotten Jacobean masque.

The performance starts as a meeting of the country’s different regions, called by mythical Britannia (great Penny Layden, in a plumed helmet and a suit), to judge whether there can ever be a United Kingdom. The key characters have no names but are symbolic figures called respectively Caledonia, Cymru, South-West, North-East, Northern Ireland and East Midlands. In many ways then the format of the production chimes with the political masques of the seventeenth century which were carefully designed allegorical entertainments to offer the elite’s version of the state of current affairs. However, despite these courtly masques’ attempts at achieving order and unity through their rigidly structured narratives, the opposite would often happen, namely disorder and conflict, and this is also much visible in My Country too.
Production’s stage design lacks however Jacobean splendour of Inigo Jones’s dazzling Baroque projects: it is but a drab polling station (most probably at a school) with a boring blue carpet. It later becomes a press conference/board meeting space, when tables and chairs are put centre-stage. Music provides quite a chaotic soundtrack, perhaps thus emphasising the central theme of My Country: division. There is Elgar, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Shirley Bassey, river dance and much more.

The show is not elitist however but Norris took a risk by invoking symbolism and mythology because they may read on stage as stereotypes. But this is how he proposes to breach them, by exposing them. Is this not true that Northerners are often portrayed and viewed as drunkards with bad eating habits? Actress playing North-East (brilliant Sunderland-born actress Laura Elphinstone) comes to Britannia’s meeting with a hangover and later offers everyone a pizza with a topping of chips.

Indeed constant bickering of the representatives of all regions, is often very entertaining; as when it suddenly turns into a fierce dance-off. This strategy offers an important layer of listening that needs to be done by spectators too: if Brits get in conflict over petty regional rivalries how they can act united and further shape democratic engagement triggered by Brexit and make it a success.

Norris declared that his first duty he felt “was to get out and give voice to people who have expressed the fact that they have no voice.” The most resounding moment of the production is when Britannia tells the audience they are witnessing ‘the sacrament of listening’. I believe that listening is perhaps the most difficult task in any emotional divisive debate and Norris’s brave approach is worth applauding. It does not make for great theatre because of unremarkable dramatic and visual impact but Norris’s ensemble managed to deliver good performances throughout and Layden’s stand-up routine as various Westminster politicians is on point.

In My Country the audience can listen to a hundred of different Brits across all ages, races and gender. These are just short snippets which often, and purposefully, are rendered cacophonous in the production. The interviewees rarely mention the EU and more often speak about broken communities: things are simply not as they used to be whether it is the ailing NHS or unsustainable property market or weird neighbours who don’t speak English. Most of all, they express anxiety about their and others’ identities in the global world.

The vital question that production poses, even if it is not obvious at first, is how one can turn this cacophony of voices and what they stand for into something productive and valuable for the future, democracy, this country. Meanwhile the jury is out if Norris’s self-professed listening project can lead to social engagement and political impact, or even if it will be an artistic success, when it starts to tour extensively in the regions. Mine and other London based-reviewers’ voices are not as important as those outside Britain’s metropolis. For me the missing conversation is that with Europe. Indeed it would be good to see the show tour there too. But as indicated in the title this is still a ‘work in progress’ so Norris can choose to make My Country about a Brexit debate involving the European voices in the UK and on the continent as well. Because, as cliché as it may sound, no man is an island.

I urge everyone to see My Country and listen to the cacophony of different voices gathered together in this brave show and reflect on how to unite them.

About The Author

Profile photo of Aleksandra Sakowska

Aleksandra (Ola) Sakowska completed her PhD at King's College London and specialises in 'Shakespeare in Performance'. She is Executive Director at British Friends of the Gdansk Theatre Trust, translator of drama, theatre critic, curator and she has written essays for such journals as Shakespeare Bulletin and Multicultural Shakespeare.

One Comment

  1. Profile photo of Oscar Balfour
    Oscar Balfour

    My Country; a work in progress communicates its attitude through its title: its intimation of a lack of an ending and its missing capitalisation infer a show that wants to be part of the process of exploration and comprehension, away from headline proclamations. The show brings together the recorded opinions of people across the country on the EU referendum, and tries it’s hardest to only tell these stories rather than use them in service of something else.

    The piece has an entertaining framing narrative that largely works well. Lady Britannia (Layden) calls a council of personified regions of the United Kingdom together to listen to the people on Brexit. Caledonia, Northern Ireland, South-West, Cymru, East Midlands and North-East all appear out of the audience to speak as their respective residents. Dressed like politicians, wearing subtle indicators of their regions e.g. a white-rose blouse for North-East, they take the mantle of representation from MP’s and channel their people in the most direct manner: by repeating their opinions.

    The regions speak frankly, all relating the interviewee’s characters with ease and grace, giving the show perfect momentum. Britannia lends structure and focus to the piece by marvelously mimicking Westminster’s key players. The personifications also have scenes as caricatures of their populace, trying to untangle their relation to each other and Westminster. Each region of course bears rivalries and differences, and the sequences where they tease each other, eat and dance are endearing. It’s all enacted with respect for unity and care. They treat each other as old friends would, and this warmth for Britain’s citizens is prevalent throughout.

    My Country’s presentation is intentionally lacking in theatre, reducing all the political maneuvering and confusion to a simple presentation of the populace’s viewpoint. The set evokes a community centre where votes are counted, a place where people come together.

    Above all, this show is engineered to come across as honest, but if all it’s doing is summarising feelings, it can come across as no more than vox pop, containing no actual information. It’s neutral presentation is appreciated, but the lack of context surrounding the topics meant that much of the show was too vague on subjects that could have easily been clarified. Fact-finding is not necessary, but in its quest for the British public’s opinion, it doesn’t really reveal much. It takes the temperature without asking how we actually live.

    The show is executed with the production value you’d expect from the National Theatre, holding a good pace and interesting progression. It manages to avoid the stillness that can often cripple Verbatim pieces, changing levels and focus to keep the audience involved. The subtle lighting and sound help keep the piece engaging on every level.

    The caricatures will inevitably not please everyone – Cymru’s heartfelt loyalty to Britannia will rub Welsh nationalists up the wrong way – but the establishment of these personalities lends more to the verbatim passages, and helps create sympathy for all of the interviewees. You can see the people of the region as facets of their personification rather than some faceless viewpoint, which encourages the shared humanity the show frames itself in. My Country gently opens people up to you, and it’s an enthralling experience. You may not take much away from it, but it’s certainly a mature step up from most Brexit media.

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