BWW Review: MY COUNTRY; A WORK IN PROGRESS, National Theatre
How quickly should art react? The National's Great Britain opened right on the heels of the 2014 phone-hacking trial, and here again the theatre is speedy with this response to the EU referendum. But, as with Brexit itself, the piece feels rather in limbo: caught in the midst of unfolding events, rather than able to fully and insightfully reflect on them.
The rigorousness of the research certainly can't be faulted. Days after the result came in, the National began a nationwide listening project, with interviewers speaking to a range of people (including a mix of ages and backgrounds) around the country, getting their views on everything from local concerns to what Britain is, was and should be.
Rufus Norris and Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy then collaborated on this 90-minute work, creatively combining snippets of verbatim interviews with politicians' words. The unifying idea is the sacrament of listening - something in short supply during an increasingly fraught and factional campaign, and an admirable basis for empathetic theatre.
The result is a cogent summary of a complex subject, with a wide variety of voices given a platform - appropriate, given the play is due to tour nationwide. But though there are some thought-provoking comments and delightful idiosyncrasies in the reported interviews, the piece lacks real revelation and sometimes descends into regional generalisation - a shared picnic and dance-off, in particular, just reinforce stereotype.
It's possible that audience members will be able to genuinely engage with a different point of view, however most of the ground covered is familiar and well-reported, from straight bananas, immigration and the island nation mentality to controlling our fishing waters, social inequality and welfare payments. And perhaps it's my personal bias, but, once again, the Leave argument seemed to get a more impassioned airing. (Us London "metropolitan elites" are notably excluded.)
Penny Layden is a majestic ringmaster as Britannia, bringing together representatives from each region. Her channelling of well-known political figures is quite a feat, though there are times - particularly with a cracking nonsensical BoJo - that it becomes more about the skill of impersonation than the substance of what's being said. The same goes for the performance of the testimonies, which sometimes rely on laughs via the juxtaposition of person and actor.
Otherwise, the excellent ensemble - also composed of Stuart McQuarrie, Adam Ewan, ChristIan Patterson, Cavan Clarke, Seema Bowri and Laura Elfinstone - channels numerous people with ease and warmth. Norris, with an assist from Polly Bennett's movement direction and Katrina Lindsay's flexible take on the community hall, manages to keep engaging and energetic what might be a dry, static experience.
While the overall sense is of confusion and disunity, it's also an oddly touching portrait of Britain. Contradiction is a key facet of our national identity: that mix of poetic and profane, ritual and earthiness, grand ideas and silly eccentricity. Tragic, then, that we should have lost sight of our strength in diversity.
The piece's democratisation, though well-intentioned, does run the risk of legitimising every ignorant or misinformed statement, giving perception and emotional response the same weight as fact - potentially dangerous in this post-truth, post-experts era. Other than the politicians, there's no holding to account those who influence opinion or misdirect resentment, such as the tabloid media.
It's also lacking a sense of urgency and forward momentum, calling for leadership, not offering it. Listening to voters' concerns rather than lecturing them is admirable, but the vote is over now - we're in a different fight, one even Jeremy Corbyn has deigned to join. So perhaps a retrospective is a luxury we can't afford to indulge in quite yet - the "in progress" of the title heralding a call to arms conspicuous by its absence.
Picture credit: Sarah Lee