Writer: Carol Ann Duffy
Director: Rufus Norris
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
There was once a joke that began: “An Englishman, a Scotsman, a Welshman and an Irishman entered a bar and…”. To continue would now be deemed politically incorrect, but, in this 80-minute show, partly a state of the nation(s) address, the National Theatre takes licence to exhume all the old perceptions and prejudices and make fun of them.
The Brexit vote on 23 June 2016 left the United Kingdom more divided and apprehensive than at any time in the modern era. The National Theatre conducted interviews with ordinary people of all ages, backgrounds and ethnicities in the days after the vote and their testimonials, spoken verbatim by actors, form the core of the show, embellished with stirring patriotic verse by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and expanded with words spoken by politicians. Following its run in the Dorfman theatre, the production embarks on a 13-venue tour covering all four nations.
Britannia (Penny Layden) convenes a meeting of representatives from Scotland (Stuart McQuarrie), Wales (Christian Patterson), Northern Ireland (Cavan Clarke), the North-East (Laura Elphinstone), the East Midlands (Seema Bowri) and the South-West (Adam Ewan). They all air their grievances – significant and petty, sentimental and rational, parochial and national – leaving the overriding impression that they sought to lay the blame for everything wrong in their lives on the only target available for them to shoot at – the European Union. Layden represents the politicians, having particular fun with Boris and Nigel.
This is not a post-mortem on the referendum outcome, but still it is odd that few of the testimonials represent the views of over 48% of the electorate. The positive case for remaining in the European Union is as absent here as it was during a referendum campaign swamped by negativity on both sides. New divisions came to light after June 2016 and the danger here is that director Rufus Norris and his company could be accused of mocking and deriding the populace and populists as part of a fightback by the metropolitan elite. The lighthearted nature of the performances probably allows the show to dodge that accusation, but only just.
As it should be, we laugh more with the people who were interviewed than at them, the politicians being the exceptions of course. In bursts of national and regional pride, the bearded Welshman impersonates Shirley Bassey, the South-Westerner demonstrates a Morris dance and the Irishman jumps into Riverdance, but the Scotsman shrinks in horror when reminded that his land was the birthplace of the new American President’s mother; cue a chorus of Donald, Where’s Your Troosers? It is all very funny, but trivial in relation to the shows’s underlying themes.
Yes, our country is, as it ever was, a work in progress, but this introspective which gives entertainment precedence over substance does little to point the way forward. The one clear message to be drawn is that, so long as we can still laugh at ourselves, all is not lost.
Runs until 22 March 2017 and then tours | Image: Sarah Lee