Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Christian Patterson in United Kingdom-in-Schism Production

My Country: a work in progress

National Theatre UK , Dorfman Theatre & Touring to Sherman & Theatr Clwyd , March-19-17
My Country: a work in progress by National Theatre UK The National Theatre in London and Scriptography in Aberystwyth would not in the normal run of things be reckoned to have much in common. Both have homes that look out over water. It depends on mood and season whether Thames or line of Buarth and Old College makes the better view. This third week in March they have another thing is common. In London “Our Country” has June 23rd for its subject. In Aberystwyth Tom O'Malley plays a spirited father. He and soberer son are sitting out by night in quest of a fox who has been soiling the son's lawn. “Are you sure it isn't a Romanian?” he asks mischievously. Within minutes father and son are seated back to back in antagonism; it emerges that they have voted for different sides.

A tiny incubator in the West has broached territory where the official theatre of Cardiff is too scared to go. Wales broke from solidarity with Northern Ireland and Scotland. Friendships splintered and relations within families were made brittle. Fissure is the raw stuff for theatre. Rufus Norris said that a National Theatre was compelled to look to the schism in Britain. Wales was prompt for an article “the Town that Shot Itself in the Foot” that went viral. Heritage theatre, performance art, it's-all-England's-fault theatre, pageantry and safety-first nostalgia does not want to know. In 2013 Tim Price had an allegorical Wales cowering in a box and sobbing with a plea to England is “I’ll do whatever you want. You have to look after me.” That was theatre with clout. In 2017 official art has moved from timidity to a culture of cowardice.

The schema for this production is excellent- it has been borrowed from Tim Price and “I’m with the Band”. Acting, music, lighting, design are everything to be expected from an institution of this stature. Direction is at the master hand of Rufus Norris himself. Everything being simultaneously meted out to poor Ibsen a few walls away is absent here. He has a fine grasp of pace. Christian Patterson twinkles with vivacity. But “My Country” soars at the moments where the verbatim content pauses and the writer takes over. Carol Ann Duffy is its co-creator. (A gross error has been made in an early line on the 1975 referendum that needs correcting.)

This is to do with the nature of the material. Verbatim theatre works where the subject is specific. That is why “Deep Cut”, “the Permanent Way” and “London Road” grip. When the subject is general it falters. That is why “Little Revolution”, “Sgint” and this piece are blurry. The best thing on stage, and worth the seeing on its own count, is a meal, fuelled on a bottle of twenty-year old malt. It conveys more about the deep substance of Britain in imaginative and theatrical terms than the material gathered but little mediated from its source. It is not a paradox; art is transformative of its component matter.

The voices themselves frequently replicate what has been made familiar in media. The BBC- in London, Edinburgh, Belfast- has worked hard within the severe limits of its medium. But the voices I have heard myself have often been as interesting as these. The microbiologist, for instance, in despair at the damage to science. Resistant bacteria that are going to kill are now all going to stop at Calais at the command of Eton, Sandhurst and the cream of England. Most of all I missed the voice of youth. It may not be said that the old lined up against the next generation. I remember a group of twenty-something Asians from Hounslow. The words on their former Mayor were bitter, “I can't believe he was prepared to dump us like that”. The words all around in pub or bus are as interesting as the ones gathered in interview. But then the two sides do not talk. Not for nothing does Britannia here play Frankie Goes to Hollywood singing “Two Tribes”.

As for the politics the script picks out four head-line figures. The Mayor-become-Foreign Secretary is the most regular. The parody is sharp and the audience is tickled. But it is a conniving with power. The entry into public life was, his own words, “40% egomania.” On June 27th he wrote for a broadsheet that free movement of people would be absolutely unchanged. To play him for jest is to play the game as he sets it. But theatre should probe power not giggle at it. There are some snide comments on the Prime Minister to get a snigger. An irrelevant diversion is made so we may show our collective disapproval of the Forty-fifth President- so radical. In fact there is nothing on show to disturb anyone in power in the slightest. If anything it a display of national solidarity which is nice.

It is good that the National Theatre has attempted “My Country” and good too that it is taking it out on the road. It plays Mold, Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool, Derry, Leicester, Warwick, Stratford East. But it should have aimed higher. Its image of the United Kingdom is as argumentative but cuddly. Maybe it is true. But events in the world rather than on the stage have a habit of taking on a trajectory whose outcomes are far unintended from their start-point. The privileged hurt the lives of the less advantaged; that is the way of the world. If dismay is felt at this production, it is because the issue, and the consequences, matter. That last sentence is not new; it has in fact been lifted straight from a review written October 20th 2013.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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