After a debut in London, this week is the first in the nationwide tour of My Country: a Work in Progress, which was put into words by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and produced by the National Theatre. After the referendum that led to Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, a decision actualized by the Prime Minister’s official triggering of the now famous article 50 last Wednesday, a team of interviewers approached members of their local communities and recorded them. They listened to an old woman remembering her childhood among sheep in the North East, to a man recalling his experience as a working class pupil in Scotland, to a woman’s narrative of a peaceful existence in Plymouth. The discussions were edited to keep only the ‘human music’, in Duffy’s words. This ambitious polyphonic production suffers perhaps precisely from its self-proclaimed refusal to elevate itself above this cacophony of voices. It’s the whole point, you say? Yes, but that’s the problem.
The personification of Britannia (Penny Layden) is the first to enter the stage. She sets up the room, arranging the light and even playing some music in preparation for this historic meeting of nations. She is quickly joined by Caledonia (Stuart McQuarrie), Cymru (Christian Patterson), South West (Adam Ewan), East Midlands (Seema Bowri), Northern Ireland (Cavan Clarke) and North East (Laura Elphinstone). Caledonia is a bit cheeky, and keeps calling Britannia ‘Britney’, North East ‘got shitfaced’ the night before, and Cymru recites Dylan Thomas. All the nations speak in the name of ordinary citizens, only Britannia channels more familiar figures: ‘Boris’, ‘Nigel’, ‘Michael’, ‘David’, ‘Jeremy’, ‘Jo’, ‘Theresa’.
This is no small acting feat: by their own account, each of the actors had to play an average of 8 or 9 characters. They hardly ever speak to each other – at each other would be more accurate. In a play born from the urge to listen, according to Rufus Norris, this is perhaps one of the most striking features. Layden does an incredible job – her voice jumps from Boris Johnson to David Cameron in the wink of an eye – and her partners on stage, although they only voice perfect strangers, deliver equally impressive performances.
In the after-show discussion, Rufus Norris repeats that his voting Remain ‘isn’t the point’, but this is already made clear by the show. The play is framed by Leave voices, from Johnson’s very quotable analogy between the EU and ‘a lobster in a butter sauce’, to claims that ‘this is our country’. The production intentionally puts these opinions in the limelight, in order to offer a faithful representation of reality, but in doing so, turns into an ensemble of cacophonic echoes. It is unclear how listening to it might bring any understanding between people who votes diverged. Amid its nations, Britannia, in the rare times when she speaks in her own voice, seems wistful and almost impotent. This production is an accurate photograph of the country in the months that preceded and followed the vote, but fails to be the decisive piece of work it could be.