March 2017; and around a table somewhere in Broadcasting House, a group of critics are on the radio, agreeing that – with the new show that has just opened at the National Theatre’s small Dorfman auditorium – the NT’s artistic director Rufus Norris is attempting “something new”.
What he has done, in the aftermath of the UK’s Brexit vote last June, is to commission a mountain of verbatim interview material from voters in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the south-west of England, the north-west and Leicester, and then work with Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy to pull it together into a 75-minute show that is part documentary, part political cabaret, featuring the words of real-life voters intercut with monologues written by Duffy for each of the actors representing different parts of the country, quotes from leading politicians, and a few songs, thrown in for good measure.
The result – now playing in London before a UK-wide tour that begins in Glasgow next week – is a show called My Country - A Work In Progress; and the fact that it can be described as “something new” speaks volumes both for Norris’s commitment to making the National Theatre a forum for public debate, and about the extent to which huge chunks of Britain’s theatre tradition – including the groundbreaking political work of Theatre Workshop, 7:84 and other radical fringe companies of the 1960s and 1970s – have traditionally gone unrecognised on London’s main stages, or had their contribution quickly marginalised and forgotten.
So the current NT director’s passion for using theatre as a live forum for trying to understand the Brexit shock is a welcome development; and so is his willingness to wade into controversy by using the phrase “my country,” at a time when Scotland and Northern Ireland are riven with debate about the very meaning of those words, and different parts of England have radically divergent views of what their country is, or should be. And as the actor playing Caledonia in the show, the London-based Scot Stuart McQuarrie – perhaps best known as Gav in Trainspotting, among scores of other roles – finds himself in the eye of that storm, speaking for Scotland in the words of UK laureate Carol Ann Duffy (herself born in Glasgow), and representing a group of predominantly Remain-voting interviewees, in a show which, in the interests of dialogue, leans slightly towards exploring the views of those who voted to Leave.
“When Rufus Norris first called me in to discuss this,” says McQuarrie, “I actually had my doubts. I’d never worked on a verbatim show before, and that’s because I always wondered just how much you can really bring to that kind of performance, as an actor; you’re speaking the words of real people, and that puts you under a strong obligation not to distort that, or to impose your own interpretation on it.
“So far, though, I’m finding it tremendously interesting, and audiences certainly seem to be responding very strongly. You do get some London audience members saying that they don’t see their feelings represented, but that is deliberate; the idea was to listen to those parts of the UK that have not been heard enough.
“And I think what all of us have found, during eight weeks of work on this show, is that we’ve kind of fallen in love with the voices of the people we’re representing. In a lot of cases, what they say seems almost like a cry for help. Many of them felt that they were voting without much information, so they were sometimes just parroting what they’d read in the media, but also often digging deep into their own life experience, in a way that’s very interesting, and very moving. They’re talking about what it means to be British, and about the real hardship many of them have suffered. And there’s a big sense of people voting because they are angry at being misrepresented, or not represented, or just completely ignored.”
And McQuarrie says that those feelings also often appear in the show’s Scottish voices, although the context is different. “In Scotland and Northern Ireland it’s almost impossible to disentangle the EU referendum from the question of independence in Scotland, and the legacy of the Troubles in Ireland. The interviewers didn’t ask questions about either of these, but they constantly came up in the answers anyway. So although the fundamental question of how to make yourself heard is the same, it’s framed very differently.”
Along with Edinburgh, Glasgow is one of the cities across Britain where interviews for the show were conducted; so the company is anticipating a very different response from the audience at the Citizens’ Theatre. “There are some very moving sequences, including reflections on the recent big influx of migrants into Govanhill in Glasgow. And when you hear those voices of ordinary people intercut with what various political leaders were actually saying at the time – well, the effect can be very powerful.
“Has working on this show changed my own view, about the referendum vote? No, it hasn’t. But it has made me much more understanding of people that I disagree with. There’s no point in making clichéd assumptions about why people vote a certain way; you just have to listen, talk face to face, and be patient, as you would in a neighbourhood group where you have to keep everyone on board.
“And then you find, if you do that, that most people have similar values, and want roughly the same things, even if they disagree about how to get there. And if this show helps in any way to get people in Britain really listening to one another, after such a divisive vote, then that can’t be bad – whatever happens politically, over the next few years.” ■
My Country – A Work In Progress is at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, 28 March-1 April, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 11-13 May, www.nationaltheatre.org.uk