Playfully directed but lacking in insight or real provocation; there’s nothing inherently wrong with My Country but it definitely didn’t rock my world.
An 80-minute verbatim piece weaving together countless interviews conducted across the UK post-Brexit, My Country (a work in progress) uses a meeting chaired by Brittania (Penny Layden) and attended by some of her constitutent parts (noticeably not London and/or the South-East) as its central conceit to investigate how and why people voted and what it is to be British.
Whilst the actors representing the constituents dip in, out of and in-between accents and mannerisms to relay a mix of poignant, mundane and uncomfortable snippets from these interviews, Layden is used to frequently represent – and impersonate the usually detestable personalities of – the politicans: including Cameron, May and a particularly scathing Boris.
A collaboration between Rufus Norris and Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, the direction is far more playful and ambitious than I was perhaps expecting. If you’re looking for a Newsnight-like debate about the causes and impacts of the referendum and its result, this isn’t that. And that’s a great thing – it does certainly feel like a piece of fully realised and rich theatre, even if it’s still at work-in-progress stage. Having said that, the dance-off section was puzzling, seemed forced and ill-fitting and left me feeling a little patronised to say the least. I’m usually always up for a bit of silly dancing, but whilst it was well-intentioned, it didn’t seem quite right here.
The actors are impressive across the board but the casting decisions less so; it’s relatively baffling that there’s one BAME performer in the company considering the subject matter and intent to represent and reflect a cross-section of voices and perspectives. One out of seven is not representative, but it’s such an obvious point to make (and one that surely would have been on their minds instantly) that I’m left baffled whether it was a somewhat conscious and deliberate decision!? Who knows… The seeming willingness to feature – rather than reject – regional stereotypes is another puzzling decision: as funny as the North East character being loud, brash and mouthy is, it seems like a slightly cheap way to get a laugh and prohibits you from truly focusing on her words.
My main problem, though, was I just didn’t leave with any new information. I’d be surprised if the attitudes voiced (on issues including immigration, class and patriotism) will shock, surprise or provoke anyone who’s lived anywhere within the vicinity of the UK in the last 12 months. There’s definitely an argument that verbatim work doesn’t need to do any of those things, and can just represent a collated summary of the ‘general feelings’ (both politically correct and incorrect) of the nation. But you can’t help watching it feeling like it would have been a lot more effective, provocative and useful if it had been made pre-Brexit. The content would obviously somewhat change, but it’d have an urgency and purpose that here it perhaps lacks.
In sum, I couldn’t possibly sit here and argue that My Country is a complete miss. The directorial decisions are fun and surprising, the cast are skilled and although the content of the interviews aren’t going to surprise anyone remotely cultured enough to have ever visited the NT, the weaving together of these opinions (Duffy’s responsibility, I assume) is well-structured and inoffensive. Everything just feels a tiny bit pointless, and a little late to the game. As much as the NT probably has a responsibility to remain relatively neutral in the productions’ ultimate line of argument, I can’t help feel that it’d have gained a lot more purpose if it had more of its own opinion – and it was spelt out far more boldly.