My Country: Work in Progress
The National Theatre addresses the state of the Disunited Kingdom
In My Country: A Work in Progress, the National Theatre of Great Britain has harvested the voices of the nation in order to reflect upon their hopes and fears following the Brexit referendum. Director Rufus Norris and poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy have stitched these testimonials together into a slick piece that feels like too little, too late.
The play is staged as a sort of emergency board meeting chaired by Penny Layden's Britannia, who also embodies Westminster, and attended by representations of UK regions, such as Caledonia, Cymru and the North East. Though the play frequently extols the importance of listening, there is no real conversation between any of the regions, and the brilliant cast instead converse in sound bites from interviews. Verbatim theatre presents many challenges, one of which is the decision whether or not to emulate interviewees' accents and speaking patterns. Layden does a top notch Boris Johnson impression, but that is exactly what it is: an impression. This tinges the other voices with a layer of artifice, which is damaging in a piece so concerned with representation of the real.
There are several questions that doggedly nip at the heels of My Country. Most frustrating is 'why'; why does this exist as a piece of theatre? Before the post-Brexit dust had even settled, screens were already saturated with vox-pops from thickly accented Brexiteers, backed into the uncomfortable corner of having to defend their voting choices. Consequently, there is little in My Country that feels original or unvoiced.
It is in the assemblage and layering of these voices where there is the potential for something more nuanced to develop, but the play's tendency towards regional stereotypes undermines this – no better example than the scene where the regions have a picnic and a dance-off. Big laughs are drawn out of Northern Ireland's enthusiastic Riverdance and Caledonia's contribution of haggis and whiskey, but at these moments the absence of a London voice at the table verges on patronising to regional audiences.
Seen at the Citizens, Glasgow, Traverse Theatre 11–13 May.