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.