When I moved to London 18 months ago, I had a list of places to check off; Shakespeare’s Globe, the Royal Court, the Almeida… Top of the list was the National Theatre. It stands, rightly or wrongly, as the figurehead for this country’s theatre making, it is expected to be the best. My first trip there was to see People, Places and Things, so perhaps my expectations for future visits were raised impossibly high. Regardless, I see everything there, expecting it to give me some of the best standard of theatre in the country, and also tell me the story of what it means to be in Britain today. Maybe that’s unfair. But that’s how I see it.
However, very often, the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain can feel very like the Royal National Theatre of London. I can remember only a handful of times a regional British accent was used on its stages by a character showing any signs of intelligence (to put it loosely.) There was The Plough and the Stars (included because the Dublin of 1916 was part of Britain,) written damn near a hundred years ago. Mark Benton’s Touchstone in Polly Findlay’s As You Like It was also thoroughly Northern, although if we’re being limited to O’Casey and Shakespearean clowns I’m not exactly impressed. Ha! I’ve got another; James McArdle’s excellent Platonov. It’s disappointing, but nevertheless, this is not a phenomenon isolated to the National by any means, and God knows I’ve seen more insulting examples, but a National Theatre should be trying harder.
So, when the National Theatre declared in the aftermath of the referendum on Europe it was producing a verbatim piece in response, I was probably more optimistic than most. Finally, I naively thought, I get to see people that talk like I do get taken seriously on our national stage. Needless to say, that is not what happened. I’m not even specifically talking about the fact that the North-West of England was left out entirely from the discourse of the play, although it pissed me off. Yes, we get to hear regional voices taken seriously, but the nature of a) verbatim and b) this piece in particular, mean that the results are somewhat tepid.
The piece, created by Rufus Norris and Carol Ann Duffy and directed by the former, takes as its story a meeting of the regions under the instructions of Britannia. It’s a bit like the Angels in Heaven scene in Angels in America, but not like that at all. Basically, the regions are personified, with actors portraying them and their inhabitants to create an audio collage that is at times theatrically interesting, but more commonly, the actors are left monologuing as the people recorded from across the country, often in static staging. The South East is mercifully left out for a change, but more puzzling is the exclusion of the rest of the Midlands and the North West. Huge swathes of population are left out, and yes, I know there are constraints; not least of which is time (the play runs 80 uninterrupted minutes,) but if you’re calling a play ‘My Country,’ you’d better be clear about who the ‘My’ refers to.
We are given endless perspective – most of which you can hear if you watch the news every now and again – and only some of it is made theatrical. There are moments when Duffy remembers she’s our national poet and actually gets involved in the text, giving Britannia speeches mourning for her country, talking of the scars left by the twentieth century. These moments are by far the strongest, and perhaps it would have been ‘better theatre’ had the whole piece been imagined thus. Incidentally, Penny Laydon, as Britannia herself, is quite brilliant; her Boris Johnson is certainly something to behold.
Benedict Andrews writes that a nation is an imagined community with fixed geographic limits. It is fortunate that at least the National is remembering its geographic limits stretch beyond the M25 and are touring this piece through July (they’re also touring Hedda Gabler later this year, so perhaps they’re getting that NT Live is not in itself enough to be a truly National Theatre,) but the National should not only be sending its own work onto the stages of the country, it should be bringing the voices of the people onto its main stages, in their own voices.
There’s politics under My Country somewhere, but I’m not sure what they are. And perhaps that’s only fitting.
Photo by Sarah Lee.