One year on from Brexit and the question still remains: exactly whose country is this? The chants of taking back control demand action, but the vague notions of from whom we are taking control back, and to whom we are giving it when we do, make the direction that action should take quite unclear. The crucial choice in naming this play My Country rather than Our Country speaks volumes about a divided Britain that is still trying to come together. Everyone has a personal stake in this country and it is this personal “My” that that the National Theatre have sought to explore in this production by seeking individual testimonials from the length and breadth of the British Isles. These stories make up the script, with additions by Poet Laureate Carol Anne Duffy, as My Country: A Work In Progress seeks to explore both the divisions made achingly apparent by the Brexit vote and the possibility of making the kingdom unite once again.
Considering the divisive subject matter this is a play that deals sensitively with issues that are continuing to bubble to the surface and it is incredible to think about how the referendum itself already feels like history when considering the political turmoil that has happened since. We open with Britannia (Penny Laydon) who calls forth the regions of Caledonia (Stuart McQuarrie), Northern Ireland (Cavan Clarke), the North East (Laura Elphinstone), the East Midlands (Seema Bowri), the South East (Adam Exan), and Wales (Christian Patterson). Set in an empty school hall, the sort usually turned into a polling station, each delegate sits behind a school exam desk. The result of the referendum is awaited and the varying experiences and concerns of different parts of the nation are brought forward by this gifted company.
While regional arguments ensue, and the debate gets heated in the end, there are moments of camaraderie and the figures stand, at least for now, together as the vote is announced with all sides having been heard. The dialogue is wonderfully interrupted by Laydon’s impressions of politicians and the rhetoric being used to actively divide the nation. Her impressions of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage were almost too vivid: this is a play that brings the Brexit news cycle that everyone, regardless of how they voted, has done their best to forget to the forefront of its audience’s mind.
As an endeavour this is brave. The production has toured the country following its premiere at the National Theatre playing to crowds in Glasgow, Derry, Liverpool, Manchester, Leicester, Cardiff, Gloucester, Edinburgh, Mid-Wales, Birmingham, Warwick, and Cambridge before returning to London at the Theatre Royal Stratford to complete its journey. Chartering both passionate leave and remain territories on its tour this is a play for everyone and has something to offer all with most voices being incorporated. At the beginning the regions hold pictures of who they represent casting them into the ballot boxes as they tell these peoples’ stories. At the end this process is reversed as the characters start tailing off when speaking and the recordings of the real people whose words they are start to play through the speakers.
The personification of the regions is an intriguing but often simplified idea. The North East particularly sits quite uncomfortably as through a thick accent the views expressed are often quite regressive and almost childlike, propagating some of the more negative Geordy stereotypes. Similarly the South West the voices are often portrayed as having large problems with immigration and integration. The East Midlands also appears to be the sole focus for ethnic diversity within the nation, but this was always going to be a difficult challenge and in fact engaging with and joking about each others’ regional stereotypes is something that serves throughout to bring a sense of equality to each representative part of the nation. There seems a definite awareness in the production that it is impossible to portray everyone in the country and so seek to dispel many beliefs that we have of people on either side of the debate.
“What is the worst insult that you can throw at a person in today’s society. It used to be that you’re a slut… that means nothing any more, d’you know what I mean? What is the worst? The worst insult that you can say to someone is, you’re a racist.”
This quotation is perhaps one of the most telling. As a production, My Country: A Work in Progress attempts to break down the labels thrown by either side and go into depth as to why individuals voted the way they did when given a choice over EU membership. Juxtaposing this with the rhetoric of politicians highlights actually how great the difference is. As one Leave voter from Northern Ireland declares “I did not vote for Nigel Farage” and others state a general dissolution with the voices of Westminster the divisions widen even further. This is a sensitive exploration of how a nation engages with politics and what individuals seek from the process.
My Country: A Work in Progress aims in bringing out the complexities of the referendum and adding the further factors of geography leads us on a journey of how “Our” country became “My” country (or, especially when listening to the representative figures from Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, whether it was ever “Our” country at all). The final lines of the play “are you listening? Do I hear you listening?” spoken by Britannia to the audience act as a call for unity. Unity requires dialogue in which both sides listen to each other, something which one year on seems more necessary than ever in these most uncertain and chaotic times.