Friday 3 March 2017

My Country at the National, or, A Limited Form of Theatre

Note: This is a review of the third performance on Thursday 2nd March 2017. No press night is listed in the NT brochure.

I haven't missed a main stage NT production since 2011. It was for that reason alone that I booked for this show. The thought of having to relive the EU referendum as theatre did not remotely attract me. Nor did the prospect of another issue play which, in my recent experience, tends to produce one sided lectures. To my considerable surprise, this show does have things to recommend it, but in the end it is limited in scope and I'm not convinced of the value of the exercise in this form.

I did hate the opening in which Penny Layden's Britannia insists on explaining both the show and the presence of the audience. I've seen this kind of device countless times and I'm sick of it. Just do the play and let the audience react as they will. If it's a good show we'll listen, but you will get nowhere, at least with me, by ordering me to do so – indeed you will have a precisely opposite effect.

The play proper then proceeds to a debate between representatives of six regions: South West, North East, East Midlands, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, with Britannia providing contributions (or rather impersonations) of leading politicians involved in the referendum. To begin with they are all stuck behind school-type desks, but the movement (Polly Bennett) becomes more fluid and often effective as the show proceeds. The regional ensemble, oddly not individually credited, of Seema Bowri, Cavan Clarke, Laura Elphinstone, Adam Ewan, Stuart McQuarrie and Christian Patterson are uniformly strong – which is a pleasure to report since this has often not been the case with shows since Norris took over at the National.

All the words, with the exception of the politician impersonations and others of Britannia's speeches, are culled from interviews with members of the public in the various regions via the approach known as verbatim theatre. The thesis of Rufus Norris (director) and Carol Ann Duffy (writer) appears to be that what is needed post referendum is for us all to listen more to each other. Listing all the interviewees whose words we hear is a mistake, and slows things up unnecessarily. The first segment of excerpts though, which presents a series of little individual vignettes about their lives, rather than anything overtly political, is effective.

But once we got into the politics I was more dubious. I admit I'm an unrepentant pro-European Remainer but I paid close attention to the referendum campaign, and I didn't feel in listening to these voices that I heard anything from either camp that I hadn't heard before. By simply re-voicing the words of the various individuals, the play has no scope to explore the truth of any of the claims made and, more seriously, no scope to really get at why these people say the things they do. With so many voices, we don't get to know any individual enough to reach a meaningful understanding of, or deep empathy with, them. Penny Layden's impersonations meanwhile are often on point and very funny, particularly her Boris Johnson, but again there's little means of getting at the whys of those speeches either.

The regional representations can feel overly cliched. It was refreshing that the first treatment of Scotland focuses on stark class divisions there, but a bit wearisome to find the cliches of whisky, haggis and Burns soon on display. Similar criticisms apply to the other regions. No doubt the cliches are the point, but of course all those regions are much more complex places as the very opening voices imply – and it's a pity the play then shies away from this.

Had all of the play been like this it would have been a pretty trying evening. But about two thirds of the way through something really powerful does happen – a glimpse into what might have been a different and, I suggest, a deeper piece. As a ferocious row about immigration rages, dominated by hating, fearful voices wanting less of it, Layden's Britannia breaks out in despair in lines that seemed to me Duffy's own (with I think a brief bit of Jo Cox at the end). It stops everything dead. It was the one point when my emotions were really engaged. It's followed by a shared meal and music as the regions, now their mythic selves rather than channels, try to cheer Britannia up – and yet for much of the following scene what holds the eye is Layden's miserable face.

Unfortunately, after that the play rather drifts. We get a montage of channeled voices stating their referendum votes, and a coda of where do we go from here – the one place where there is a significant gap in the voices – nobody speaks for people like me who continue to feel a rage and despair about the result and all that has followed.

Overall, this show made me lament what might have been. The ensemble, and especially Layden, give strong performances. The best of it comes when the regions cease to be channels for other voices and become characters in their own right. This would have been a braver, and I think potentially more powerful show, if the play had been about those characters, with the interviews as a research base, and had allowed them to truly take on lives and developments of their own. That might also have allowed a more genuine debate and perhaps some enlightenment. Simply listening again to a repeated cacophony of voices gets us only so far and, myself, I'm not convinced that's very far at all.

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