Morality plays that teamed with allegorical characters started falling into disuse about 450 years ago and I think there was a reason why. They feel extremely unreal, unimmediate and irrelevant. Duffy’s Everyman didn’t work, and neither does this. (If you don’t know the concept behind Duffy and Rufus Norris’ latest hare-brained collaboration: Britannia calls a meeting of the different parts of the country to discuss the EU referendum.)
Unfortunately, because this is a national play at the national theatre about to embark on a national tour, Duffy doesn’t include the entire country, notably, from my point of view, leaving out London. Just to emphasise that this is about the whole nation. Not just London. In fact, the only way in which London is represented is through the voices of Westminster politicians, delivered by Britannia.
The actors representing different parts of the country hold up pictures of their constituents’ faces, the interviewees’ voices they will imitate throughout the play. Perhaps it’s due to the very nature of the piece that it feels over-acted. At some points the actors seem to be mocking the voices of the interviewees more than delivering their viewpoints. The play puts the voices of ordinary voters alongside the voices of politicians (that being said, at the end the pictures of the interviewees are put into ballot boxes, whereas the pictures of the politicians aren’t). Duffy fails to fully flesh out the different areas of the UK into characters. The debate descends into cheap laughs: nit-picking over whose teen pregnancy stats are worst and who has the best motorways. The play is too short for Duffy to properly convert these countries into characters. When we are left with only the words of the interviewees, the play is average. But it really lags when we’re listening to Duffy’s own words. ‘Let us be closer’. ‘I am Britannia…I am your cenotaphs with paper poppies fading in the rain…’. It has none of the whimsical triumph of Lia William’s ‘like a plant in the rain in the red’ speech in Oresteia. It’s totally unemotive and blank. I don’t understand what a referendum from last year has to do with this border-line archaic, purple prose-y language.
And then there’s Britannia’s (Penny Layden) impressions of Westminster politicians. As impressions go, they’re very subtle/unemphasised. We basically get a run-through of the major speeches that appeared on our television screens in the run-up to and the aftermath of the referendum. It’s a neat little montage that makes me think maybe this would be better for television. Most of the soundbites are recognisable: from the ‘referendum lock to which only [the people] should hold the key’, to Britain’s independence day, from people have ‘had enough of experts’, to a series of Boris gems (something about cornflakes, the biggest stich-up since the Bayeux tapestry and invertebrate jellies). We get a bit of Jo Cox (Britannia holding up a picture of Jo at the beginning, saying ‘I speak for Jo’, is probably the only powerful moment in the play): ‘we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us’. Theresa May even crops up at the end.
The title is massively inaccurate. This isn’t my country. But, in fairness to the NT, This Country is a very different (and much better) kind of show. And Our Country sounds eerily similar to something else. So My Country is the only title left. It’s semi-fitting for a play that touches on ideas of unity and disunity, but I can’t help but feel that ‘The Brexit Play’ would be better. Or perhaps that’s just me. That is all Rufus Norris has really achieved with this. A play about Brexit. It isn’t a particularly good play, but it is a play. Anyhow, this play doesn’t feel at all representative of my country, the country I like to think I live in. My country is four sevenths men? And six sevenths white? FUCK. OFF. There’s only one voice that identifies as under the legal voting age of 18. And the voices of those who didn’t vote get less than a minute’s stage time. This play doesn’t connect with my experience of the country I live in.
There isn’t a rift down the middle of our country, remain or leave. Perhaps it’s satisfying to compact the referendum down into this binary decision but that’s not the reality. There’s also the choice of whether or not to vote. And I would argue that vote or not vote isn’t so much a second binary that underscores the central remain/leave binary, but instead part of a bigger structure. The path splits into three, not two. Remain/leave/not vote. Those were my choices on 23rd June 2016. Remain, leave, or not vote. Three choices, not two.
This isn’t so much a history play, but the relevance isn’t piercing – and that’s what all good history plays have in common. It’s something that true of all Shakespeare’s history plays, but especially true of Ostermeier’s Richard III, a charismatic dictator, who, like Trump, wins against all the odds. It is impossible to believe that This House will ever not have a biting relevance to politics today (I saw it on the day Tristram Hunt resigned and particular lines in the play echoed more; there are even lines in the play that feel more relevant to now than then). This isn’t a history play but a today play, ‘a work in progress’. But Brexit feels more like an issue from six months ago. Now it’s just a thing that’s slowly moving forward, that’s happening among other world events. It doesn’t hurt in the same way that it did last summer. On the day I saw it, only one paper’s front page mentioned Brexit. Other papers chose to run with calls for Gideon Osborne to resign as an MP, Google’s failure to remove anti-Semitic content from YouTube, claims that drinking tea prevents dementia, bullets that Ian Brady potentially used to murder Keith Bennett, and the new Bake Off presents for Channel 4. Also in the news: Trump’s team wades in on the Israel-Palestine conflict. A shooting at Paris airport. Merkel visits Trump in Washington and GCHQ denies claims that they collected surveillance data on Trump. Theresa May is doing fuck all.
None of this would matter if the National Theatre had used the eight months between now and the referendum to compile a work that truly sums up the idea of Brexit. But this doesn’t. There’s some British food, and Bond music, which is meant to be funny or feel-good, but it just ends up just feeling over-done. The truth is, this play could have been about any issue in British politics post-WW2. Nothing feels as painful/euphoric as it did on 4.40 am on the 24th June. This is the kind of play I could take my granny to. I wouldn’t have to worry about politics coming up because a) there’s no interval and b) the play doesn’t feel remotely political. Granny doesn’t tolerate plays with loud noises, nudity, strobe lights, controversial topics and people dying at the end. But frankly any play with less than three of these is bound to feel a little lacking.
Favourite line: ‘there’s a very nasty woman now as the prime minister’