At every press conference since the EU referendum result in June 2016 I've listened to journalists asking Rufus Norris how the National Theatre plan to deal with 'Brexit' – in the broadest terms, where is the 'Brexit Play' coming from? Whilst some of the more intricate and compelling plays around the 'Great Debate of 2016 and all that followed' are no doubt being conceived as we speak, the venue's first response to a divided Britain and the arguments arising over the in/out referendum campaign, the vote itself and indeed the fallout is a neatly conceived and somewhat stirring verbatim piece that takes in voices from all over the British Isles and is, as the title suggests, something of a work in progress.
Carol Ann Duffy has been tasked with the job of curating and formally writing this quietly affecting patchwork piece based on dozens of interviews with 'real' people from Derry, Sunderland, Edinburgh, Leicester and so forth that attempts to offer an explanation of the referendum result in so much as hearing it from a variety of voices rather than through the mouths of politicians or the media. As you'd expect, Duffy's lyricism provides some of the play's most warming passages, and whilst it maybe doesn't add anything new to the overall debate it helps physicalize the sense of divided Britain, however crudely, and through the voices widens your understanding beyond some of the more well-trodden rhetoric and into the personal.
The verbatim passages are framed within a conceit of Britannia holding a quasi-conference for the corners of her kingdom, beginning in a mock-UN semi-circle of desks which brings together Caledonia, Cymru, Northern Ireland, south-west England, the north-east and the east Midlands. Cue the appropriate stereotypes and accents, elements which Duffy pushes towards a heated climax that sees each figure turn on the next in playground bully style until the humour probes a little too far and Caledonia threatens to leave. Cue the nervous and knowing laughter from the audience. As a framing device it takes some time to settle and can occasionally make you clench your jaw, but it ultimately gives way to each character being able to speak their verbatim sections as members of their respective communities, holding up pictures of their voices that helps bring the play back to the ground and remind us of the piece's overall motive.
Some of the more interesting passages steer away from the typical arguments and well-trodden Question Time style arguments and unlock the people behind these disparate voices. There's warmth and humour in many of the portrayals and each subject speaks openly on topics that begin with a sense of status quo, moving on to the debate and the vote itself and its aftermath. The patter is broken or intercepted by Britania herself speaking verbatim from the key voices of the Referendum – Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and David Cameron, effectively played without a full attempt at parody but with enough vocal and physical distinction to allow the words to really land. Penny Layden delivers each of these effortlessly whilst physically shouldering the fractures of the country that feels almost cathartic as the others force her into her Britannia-garb, where instead of sitting strong and proud clutching her trident she instead looks defeated, wearied and apologetic. It's a powerful image and one that's not lost on the audience but feels earns within Duffy's dramaturgy that helps the individual voices feel collective, throwing the weight and troubles of the nation onto one single image that has arguably been changed forever.
The verbatim works due to the careful commitment of each of the performers who manipulate their voices and bodies and fully inhabit their subjects – every stutter and utterance is felt and the voices feel alive and in the room. Norris' lively staging controls the brisk 80 minute production so that it peaks and troughs in terms of energy and rhythm. For all the louder 'dance parties' and arguments I felt most moved and affected by the quiet lyricism of the voices that blend ages, race, gender and opinion and each maintained their sense of idiosyncrasy and preserved the fears and hopes
In terms of the overall argument Duffy doesn't look for rhyme and reason or aim to enlighten you either way – instead it reads as an honest response that leaves you with a fractured image of Great Britain and the state of the country now. Greater plays about the issue, the debate and the fallout will no doubt arrive but this is a powerful and affecting portrayal of Britain in the moment and as a 'work in progress', effectively presented and lyrically told.
My Country: A Work in Progress runs at the National Theatre until 22 March before a UK tour.
What the Press Said...
"Britannia is divided in this bold piece built from voter interviews but it is a fragmented work that does not tell us anything new."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Norris keeps it all pacey and playful, conscious that that there’s no decisive element of drama and that it’s only a whisker away from a glorified session of Question Time."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"This project could have been illuminating before the referendum, but now seems disappointingly trite."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard