Theatre review: My Country; A Work in Progress

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Creature Comforts put the voices of ordinary people into the mouths of modelling-clay animals. It made everyday conversation funny and surreal. A similar thing takes place in My Country; a Work in Progress, a response to the Brexit vote by Carol Ann Duffy and Rufus Norris in which seven actors take on the voices of UK citizens interviewed about the leave/remain schism. It surely wasn’t the intention, but the verbatim technique makes everyone sound as daft as the Aardman animals.

Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow ***

It’s not just their digressions, contradictions and slip-ups, it’s their weak grasp of the bigger picture, their ready acceptance of political cliché and their preference for gut instinct to deep analysis. In this, each side is as bad as the other.

It’s an effect that sets My Country apart from most verbatim plays. When such shows work, it’s because of the access they give to rare experiences, be that of convicts on death row, victims of sex trafficking or the unjustly bereaved. The interviewees in this play, by contrast, have no special insight, just the same jumble of half-thoughts we’ve been hearing on phone-ins for months. It’s as illuminating as a night with the Question Time audience.

If it was Norris’s intention to direct a play about a nation riven by confusion, he has succeeded. Apart from its tendency to add to the noise of an already cacophonous debate, it’s a diverting show, warmly embraced by a Glasgow audience for its direct address and air of topicality, not to mention Stuart McQuarrie’s funny take-offs of contrary Scots.

But if his aim, as he has stated, was to make remain-voting theatregoers listen to opposing opinions, his achievement is less certain. That’s because the pro-Brexit arguments are not only familiar, they’re too ill-considered to change anyone’s mind.

Consequently, watching My Country on the day Theresa May triggered article 50, it’s the character of Britney who makes the biggest impression. Played by Penny Layden, she becomes a broken Britannia, sad that her country of curry-eating Morris dancers should have fallen out of love with its own quirky variety.

She gives the play something like an emotional heart, but hers is a gesture of despair, one that is imposed on the verbatim material without offering a political alternative. It’s good that My Country gives a snapshot of the mood of the times, except we knew the mood of the times already.

MARK FISHER

Final performance today