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My Country; a work in progress at The National Theatre – Review

Penny Layden and Christian Patterson (Photographer: Sarah Lee)
Penny Layden and Christian Patterson (Photographer: Sarah Lee)

If I were to write a play about Brexit, it would be so long it would probably require two intervals. My Country doesn’t even have one, which I thought was quite an achievement in itself until I realised that the complex arguments both in favour and against leaving the European Union weren’t really being discussed in a meaningful way. I don’t think it is categorically a missed opportunity because essentially, the play does what it sets out to do, in giving its audiences verbatim opinions from both political leaders and members of the public. The voices of ‘Leavers’ seemed more prominent than those of ‘Remainers’, a point a fellow theatregoer and I separately concluded. In case anyone thought our positions on the country-wide referendum in 2016 influenced this viewpoint either way, I voted one way while she voted the other.

The play gets off to a serene start, with the characters introducing themselves. Britannia (Penny Layden) chairs a meeting of regional representatives. It’s absurdist, and to aid understanding, the show’s programme even has an article on Britannia – its etymology and ‘modern use’, and everything in between. Now, there are certain stereotypical conceptions out there of behaviour and lifestyle in the various regions of the UK. My Country does little to discourage them, which made me think of a lyric from the musical Avenue Q: “Ethnic jokes may be uncouth / But you laugh, because they’re based on truth.” So Cymru (Christian Patterson) leads a rendition of Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer, Caledonia (Stuart McQuarrie) storms off at one point, showing off his ‘independence’ (geddit?) and the North East (Laura Elphinstone) apparently likes to have chips as a pizza topping. Oh, and everyone in Northern Ireland (Cavan Clarke) randomly breaks into Riverdance whenever they’re in a good mood.

Things are so calm and respectful to begin with that one can quite easily predict that chaos is about to descend in some form. I didn’t see any meaningful purpose in having numerous personal stories being told. They were interesting, but as there were so many of them, they felt disconnected from one another. It would be harsh to say there was no character development, but in jumping from story to story, the play becomes unnecessarily complicated. I would have preferred hearing the views of someone who was interviewed as part of the research process for this play in its entirety (or near entirety) before moving on to the next one.

This, then, is more a stream of consciousness than a coherent debate, epitomised so well by a child interviewee who talks about there being a “good train service, good bus service, good taxi service” where they are based. Of the political voices, the likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson were over-represented. Penny Layden’s portrayal of Johnson is faultless, and while his soundbites make for good entertainment in the National Theatre (“My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it”) it makes the play unbalanced.

And then there’s all that business about the colour of beans and the curvature of bananas. Elsewhere, I found someone’s analysis of “Brexit means Brexit” downright hilarious, and there is indeed something bizarre at best and vacuous at worst by defining something by itself. However, repeated pleas from Britannia to ‘listen’ began to irritate. What else would an audience be doing in the theatre if not listening? The cast do a great job, but there’s not much to take away from this ambitious but unexceptional production. Even Jeremy Corbyn has acknowledged a “real fight” has started, which makes the play’s instruction to lend an ear to what people are saying, with no accompanying encouragement to take action, rather odd.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

Britannia calls a meeting to listen to her people. Caledonia, Cymru, East Midlands, North East, Northern Ireland and the South West bring the voices of their regions. The debate is passionate, the darts are sharp, stereotypes nailed and opinions divided. Can there ever be a United Kingdom?

In the days following the Brexit vote, a team from the National Theatre of Great Britain spoke to people nationwide, aged 9 to 97, to hear their views on the country we call home. In a series of deeply personal interviews, they heard opinions that were honest, emotional, funny, and sometimes extreme.

These real testimonials are interwoven with speeches from party leaders of the time in this new play by Carol Ann Duffy, Poet Laureate, and director Rufus Norris.

My Country; a work in progress opens in London before playing at venues around the country.
Created in collaboration with; Citizens Theatre, Curve, Derry Playhouse, Live Theatre, National Theatre Wales, Sage Gateshead, Salisbury Playhouse and Strike A Light Festival in association with Cusack Projects Limited.

My Country; a work in progress
in the words of people across the UK and Carol Ann Duffy
Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes. There is no interval
Dorfman Theatre

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