Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and Rufus Norris work collaboratively in ‘My Country: A Work in Progress’ to dramatize perhaps one of the most divisive issue of recent years: Brexit.
The play captures the controversy in the form of a delegate meeting, in which testimonies are put forward from across the country from each of the delegates’ representatives. Britannia appears first, followed by Caledonia (Scotland) and the rest of the delegates; East Midlands, West Country, Cymru (Wales), Northern Ireland and the North East.
By introducing Britannia before the others, the play symbolically draws attention to the fact that Britannia cannot be emblematic of the entire nation, and that she is merely the nominative head. We see that even a term like Britannia is innately problematic. By standing for all these different regions of the country she is necessarily shaped and reliant upon them, and should be representative of disparate regions in Britain as well. The message is plain: that any idea of Britain or indeed any nation as being one unified whole is untenable. This is something that becomes clearer throughout the progression of the eighty minute play. What begins as a mostly dignified debate on the issues of the referendum, with Britannia guiding the proceedings, descends in the second half into chaos. The desks are moved out of place, delegates stand up and roam randomly, with all intelligibility lost in a cacophony of voices.
Penny Layden’s Britannia clearly speaks for those in power, allowing her to do to great comic effect impersonations of the principal characters of the election, especially Boris Jonson and Nigel Farage.
Meanwhile, the other delegates ventriloquize the diverse voices that constitute the nation, ranging from children to pensioners, whose interviews Duffy collected and assembled into an incongruous tapestry of opinions. The obvious effect of the verbatim performance, especially among these secondary delegates, is that we see the contradiction contained even within these representatives.
Each speech given by the same actor gives a contradictory view of the same topic, whether it be immigration, terrorism or sovereignty. Any idea of resolution on these critical issues consequently appears hopeless. It would seem from this point of view then that the play merely offers a bleak and perhaps patronising reflection of how fractious our society has become.
But such an interpretation, I think, would be too simplistic. Duffy’s faultless script allows the play to move deftly from poignant notions of ‘nationhood’ to the comical trivialities of ordinary life within a single sentence. By placing a theme like ‘sovereignty’ within the context of a young woman’s expectation of life in Britain, a tension is created between the universal meaning of the term and its limited application in the life of an ordinary citizen. For it is only by forcing an uneasy conjunction of the micro and the macro, of the everyday person and the grand symbolism of characters such as Britannia, that the play provides the audience with constant laughter. This, of course, is playwright Carol Ann Duffy’s great achievement: to reduce grand pretensions of nationhood into comedy. We glimpse this first with the opening scene placing Britannia in a drab office room, with ballot boxes in the background and lighting as though she were about to give a press conference.
The idea that what we are viewing may in fact be a press conference, positioning the audience in the active role of interrogative press, puts an immediate strain on the symbolic status of Britannia. What was once a noble, intangible and almost godlike figure is here placed by Duffy as part of the muddy world of public relations. But it is this shared, diverse and necessarily divisive aspect of nationhood that is celebrated within the comedy, even though it was exactly this that caused the Brexit vote.
Norris and Duffy’s play succeeds in doing what it sets out to do: to not moralize or leer at the contradictory opinions of the British public but to celebrate their diversity and to place their incongruity at the heart of what it is to be British.
Reviewed by: Hector MacDonald