Friday 28 April 2017

My Country

Curve, Leicester
27th April, 2017

The National’s verbatim Brexit response piece has rolled into Leicester as part of its wide UK tour following a run in the Dorfman.

How can the National Theatre be truly national and how can this Brexit piece truly speak for the whole nation? The ‘National’ part of the National Theatre is regularly, as it should be, scrutinised regarding its programming; audience outreach; diversity (of writers, actors, directors, management, creatives, audiences); and responsibility for work to reach beyond the metropolitan, hipster South Bank including debates over NT Live versus its commitment to touring and much more.

6 actors representing different parts of the United Kingdom – namely Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the South West, the North East and the East Midlands – meet Britannia, a sort of mythical authority figure to discuss the forthcoming Brexit vote. In what plays out as a sort of model UN meeting, Rufus Norris’ production brings together verbatim soundbites of members of the public’s views on Brexit, immigration, sovereignty, jobs, politicians, etc. from an array of political viewpoints.

Leicester(shire): Red Leicester. Melton Mowbray pork pies. Premier League champions of 2016. Richard III found under a car park. National Space Centre. Narborough Road, thought to be the country’s most multicultural road. Bradgate Park. Curve. Melton Road. The Attenborough brothers. Gary Lineker. Adrian Mole. The list goes on. The Asian actor (Seema Bowri) who represents the East Midlands in My Country, and in particular the people of Leicester, calls the city ‘the centre of England’. She affects a Leicester accent to evoke a person quietly complaining that ‘you don’t see many faces like mine as you used to and that ‘the city doesn’t feel as safe as it did’ (I’m paraphrasing). In a different accent, she becomes a person praising Leicester’s diversity saying that it is equally represented by ‘Feast India’ (an Indian buffet in the Melton Road area) and ‘Mrs Bridges’ Tea Rooms’ (an old quaint café in the city near the cathedral).

The joy with a list like mine above is that it gives a basic introductory, tourist’s guide to Leicester. But that is also its problem: it’s only a list. It doesn’t give a detailed insight into what it’s like to live in Leicester (as my girlfriend does), what it’s like to live in Leicestershire (as I do), what does it mean (if anything) to be from Leicester, nor does it give an idea to what is not so great about being from Leicester. It’s a list of hackneyed labels, like the patriotic clichés in Hugh Grant’s press conference speech in Love, Actually and not dissimilar to Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry given to Britannia in My Country: ‘I am your memory, your dialects, your cathedrals,/ your mosques and markets,… motorways and railway lines, your hospitals, your cenotaphs with paper poppies fading in the rain’. Duffy’s input may be loaded with symbolism and patriotism but – like it sometimes seemed clumsy in Duffy and Norris’ Everyman – it occasionally jars with the verbatim or feels like an attempt to crowbar in mawkishness. The character of Britannia feels like an under-baked idea to highlight how high the stakes were/are over the EU Referendum and what a seismic event in Britain’s history it will be.

I feel there’s a push and pull issue with the play in that it wants to voice specific and individual ideas as well as aiming to be all-encompassing and representative (impossible) of the whole nation. Because My Country presents multiple opinions from a few politicians to the electorate (and a child), people might think it pretends to verisimilitude, in that it is fully representative of the UK. However, the verbatim opinions are reduced to soundbites performed by an accent or a caricature, albeit ones extremely well realised by the cast. In a way, it becomes almost as cardboard cut-out as Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice when I think it aspires to be deeper than that (not that I don’t like that play). Incidentally, if you want plays which explore key issues offered up by the Leave side in the campaign such as fishing and pig farming then I recommend Bean’s Under the Whaleback and Harvest.

Despite all these reservations about the inevitably problematic process and text of My Country, it works as a vital and enjoyable piece of theatre, incredibly well performed by an ensemble cast. Special mention, however, has to go to Penny Layden as Britannia, who morphs from the stiff-lipped diplomacy of David Cameron to the gurning, slouching Boris Johnson (whose speeches about lobsters and cornflakes are unbelievably real!) to the cocky, broad-shouldered confidence of Nigel Farage. Just as the Referendum was divisive it seems that My Country is as well, perhaps a genius way of the play’s form being reflective of its subject matter.

If you’re wondering how Leicester voted:
Remain: 70,808 (51.1%)
Leave: 67,992 (48.9%)
My borough, in south Leicestershire:
Remain: 14,292 (45.4%)
Leave: 17,173 (54.6%)

My Country plays at Curve, Leicester until 29th April and then tours. For more information visit

The company of My Country. Credit: Sarah Lee.

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