BREXIT MEANS… A BIT OF A DOG’S BREAKFAST
Rufus Norris of the National Theatre is to be applauded for taking on the post-referendum mood, and making an honest stab at understanding why it happened. Last June the theatre community and its followers tended more to utter cries of horror and pour torrents of frank calumny on the 52% : dupes or xenophobes, Ukippers and racists, OMG how could they? It was (and we need a properly funny Richard Bean or James Graham play about this) a bizarre moment in social history, when the left and the Fabian-minded liberals furiously scolded the northern unemployed and the neglected rural poor for disobeying an Etonian, Tory, prime minister and big business…
This is a verbatim piece, billed as a work-in-progress and oddly selective in its regions (East Anglia forgotten, as ever). Britannia, splendidly played as a worried matriarch by Penny Layden morphing into various politicians (she does a cracking Boris), has assembled representatives of each region – Scotland, Cymru, Northeast, Northwest, Midlands, Southwest – who speak the words gathered by researchers, irrespective of gender. They then fall – an hour into the 90 minutes – into some nicely furious argument and movement.
The beginning, though, is pretty static: they state their lives, a bit of childhoods sometimes, and utter their preoccupations before moving on to the Brexit issue. There are a few nice comments which are familiar enough – one seeing the EU as like an older sibling who’s on the dole but buys you presents with money you’ve contributed to anyway, others fretting about immigration, though with the usual failure to distinguish between global influx and actual EU citizens. Unfortunately some speakers, through this selection, end up with particular characteristics: a chippy Scot, resentful Midlander, a comically smug Southerner (who’d have guessed..).
There is a lot of “if I moved to their country I’d keep their rules” and a few stupidities. And here I became uneasy. It is not free from the same flaw that made the artistically brilliant London Road hard to watch for me (and a good few others). Verbatim interviews re-created by actors, however skilfully, create a distance. Since they are usually interviews with unpractised and unguarded speakers, it is fatally easy to seem to send them up. Three or four times in this show, a line raised a laugh from the knowing NT london-liberal audience. Yet when a medley of real recordings was played at the end the voices were less likely to be ludicrous. More hesitant, real, humble.
So there’s a discomfort in the sense that ill-phrased but sincere views are being, however subtly, mocked. One critic complained that the play’s fault was that the metropolitan liberal elite wasn’t represented. Trouble is, it was: it was out there in the stalls, sniggering.
But it was worth a try, and Carol Ann Duffy’s poetic moments, spoken by Layden (who really is very good) are powerful. “I am Britannia. I am your memory, your cathedrals, schools, pubs, hospitals…your rain. I sing your thousand musics” etc. And when it becomes purely theatrical, in a big final row, the vote moment, and the astonished huddle of people who realize that bloody hell, they’ve actually done it, broken the union… then, it is striking.
It goes off on tour round the country soon. Interesting to see what the real regions make of it. I see it gets as far east as Cambridge, but once again the mystery and identity of East Anglia remain unexplored by mainstream theatre.
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