Words by Charlotte Heap / Production shots by Sarah Lee
There’s no way that the REP could have known that My Country; a work in progress would come to Birmingham in the middle of a snap general election campaign. Running from Tuesday 16th May to Saturday 20th May, in the REP’s Studio, this new play directed by Rufus Norris promises to hold a mirror up to post-Brexit Britain. The timing could not be better.
In the chaotic days after the referendum, when the country decided whether to ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’ in the European Union, Rufus Norris – director of the National Theatre, contacted writers and directors all over the country and asked them to start conducting ‘long interviews’ with the public, capturing the feelings of our citizens after the vote. The project had personal resonance for Norris but seems particularly important given his role at the National Theatre – a company that, as Norris recognises, needs to “embrace the creativity and opinion around the UK.”
The fallout from the referendum is ongoing: embroiled as we are in an identity crisis which threatens to change the very fabric of our country; it is clear that our belief systems are dividing us. The Arts has always had a responsibility to reflect what is happening in society and this is what Norris set out to do. The interviews evolved into My Country; a work in progress, written in collaboration with Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and based on more than 80 hours of transcripts containing the thoughts of the spectrum of society. Drawing from the emotional and, at times, extreme views of the community, My Country presents as a timely examination of where we are.
And where are we? According to Rufus Norris the overriding feeling garnered from the interviews was fury. Fury and a rejection of modern politics: worryingly, a selfishness and over confidence in our opinions also shone through the speeches that Norris listened to and transcribed himself before working with Duffy. My Country; a work in progress promises to reflect this reluctance to empathise: “With the death in belief of the great them – whether they are politicians, kings and queens or experts – what do we believe in? We believe in ourselves,” says Norris in an interview with The Guardian. “Cameras now are only used to take photos of ourselves – not of anything around us. We know we are in an age of extreme selfishness.”
The thoughts of the people interviewed will be interwoven with political sound bites, and Duffy’s involvement surely demands the dry humour and droll analysis that she, and perhaps the nation, is known for. It may be needed; Norris has “been incredibly diligent” carefully shaping a play which reflects the outcome of the vote. Individual actors will represent the six regions of the country, with the balance of Leave/Remain opinions represented on stage more in favour of those who voted to Leave. Not only because that was the end result, but because Norris and Duffy acknowledged that theatres can be seen “a liberal echo chamber” and they wanted to ensure “what will inevitably be perceived as our pro-remain bias is properly balanced.”
Perhaps realising that confronting the views of your political opposite may be an exhausting prospect, the play apparently uses Britannia herself to rally (or perhaps referee?) her people. It remains to be seen (no pun intended) whether there will be any light relief in such a seismic topic.
But in asking if there can ever be a United Kingdom, before a general election which is arguably leaving us feeling more at odds than ever, My Country; a work in progress certainly promises to challenge. Let’s hope it also entertains.
My Country; a work in progress – full trailer
Audience reaction to My Country; a work in progress
My Country; a work in progress runs at the Birmingham REP from Tuesday 16th to Saturday 20th May, as presented by The National Theatre.
Evening performances will be held daily at 7:45pm, with matinees at 2:45pm on Thursday 18th and Saturday 20th May. For direct event info – including full venue details, show times and online tickets sales, click here.
For more on My Country; a work in progress from the National Theatre, visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/my-country
For more from The National Theatre, visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk
For more from the Birmingham REP, including a full event programme and online ticket sales, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk