Words by Charlotte Heap / Production shots by Sarah Lee
My Country; a work in progress – the new play from Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, and director of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris – was clever from the first scene. The audience is immediately involved as Britannia herself dances to 80’s classic ‘When Two Tribes go to War’, while preparing a village hall set for a meeting with her regional representatives. It was clear that Duffy’s dry humour would feature heavily.
In creating My Country; a work in progress, Duffy and Norris have interwoven real quotes from people across the country, verbatim, with political soundbites and Duffy’s own poetic prose – resulting in a razor sharp script, distilling the emotional, conflicting, and at times extreme range of views currently dividing our understanding of ‘Britishness’. Much focus is given to a young interviewee’s love of his hometown and his hope for happiness: a naive but pure viewpoint which both amused and endeared. Careful editing further delivers a debate which escalates to a seemingly unsolvable disagreement, purposely mirroring where society is now: a country divided by issues such as race and immigration, but united by sarcasm and wit. Duffy’s voice appears at welcome interviews, poignantly delivered by a hopeful Britannia.
Inventive choreography and staging (using just chairs, tables and ballot boxes) complimented the slick dialogue. Deftly reflecting stereotypes so ingrained in British culture with minimal props, music was also used masterfully. From the aforementioned Frankie Goes to Hollywood to a hymn sung hauntingly by the cast, My Country took the audience from amusement to sorrow and back again.
Britannia’s accurate impersonations of the key political characters of the referendum campaign raised some of the biggest laughs of the evening; the authors selected the most ironic quotes from the likes of Boris Johnson and David Cameron, which were savagely brought to life ‘Spitting Image’ style. The actors representing the six regions on stage also delivered their residents’ words with fluidity and comedic timing.
However the cast struggled with a major issue; for a play that seeks to promote listening, discourse and understanding, what this piece benefited from in humour it lacked in balanced representation.
Rufus Norris set out to challenge the ‘liberal echo chamber’ of theatres, identifying society’s reluctance to empathise in a recent interview with The Guardian: ‘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.’
Yet the authors of My Country chose some of the most nonsensical or extreme views held within the transcripts and political posturing: viewpoints which could be amusing, but not necessarily sympathetic to the wider debate. Disappointingly, there was a lack of rational argument represented in the text. An editorial decision which meant that while the play entertained, it perhaps didn’t do enough to persuade either side to listen the other’s reasoning.
More importantly there was a lack of representation on stage. And as talented as the actors in My Country are, when seeking to portray the spectrum of society you need more than a solitary British Asian person surrounded by white faces. Britain is multi-cultural; a fair representation of Britain should be cast to reflect that. Delivering the voices of widespread cultures and ethnicities a tricky thing to navigate respectfully, and something that My Country; a work in progress should re-examine in both casting and rehearsals.
Having set out to capture and challenge the zeitgeist of an important moment in our political history, My Country; a work in progress is theatrically still exactly that – unfinished. Although the most hopeful and uniting moments in the play, provided by Duffy’s powerful poetry, remind us that the British people are linked by many commonalities despite our current rifts.
Politically in Britain, what happens next will remain to be seen. But for My Country; a work in progress to become the complete article, it needs to examine the way it delivers its important message to resonate with all sections of our society.
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, 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