My Country: This Brexit play actually listened to people in the UK

PUBLISHED: 22:29 03 March 2017 | UPDATED: 22:29 03 March 2017

(Sarah Lee)

(Sarah Lee)


The latest production at the National Theatre is a Brexit-inspired play based on a national conversation sparked by the referendum.

(Sarah Lee)(Sarah Lee)

Brexit has produced a great deal of talking, but perhaps not quite so much listening. At least, until now.

The response to last year’s referendum from the National Theatre was to send out a team of “gatherers” to (almost) all corners of the UK to speak to members of the public, between the ages of nine and 97, and record their views, fears and hopes.

The result is a production, My Country; a work in progress, written by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and directed by Rufus Norris, which starts at the National Theatre this week.

The play has taken the verbatim testimonials of those who took part in the project and – with speeches from party leaders woven in – crafted them into some semblance of order, to create a meeting, called by Britannia, of the country’s various constituent parts, to see if there can ever be a United Kingdom.

Bringing all of the contributions together into a coherent piece of theatre has been a tall task. When I arrive backstage at the National Theatre, the cast are sitting at school desks in front of Norris and Duffy in the rehearsal room.

The desks in front of them are piled with transcripts detailing the experiences and concerns of those who took part in the exercise. These scraps of paper appear to be divided into a kind of organised chaos. Each pile, I later find out, represents a particular theme that emerged from the conversations: “Europe”, “hardship”, “immigration”, “listening” and “leadership”.

“Trying to put things into a coherent form in a few weeks is kind of impossible” admits Norris. My Country has followed an unconventional creative process – the actors began without a play to rehearse. But the more they listen to the gathered responses of ordinary Brits, My Country finds its voice as part of a conversation that isn’t going away any time soon.

It was a conversation started by Brexit. Following the vote, teams of gatherers were sent out to three regions of England – the east Midlands, the north east and the south west – Derry/Londonderry in Northern Ireland, Glasgow and Edinburgh, in Scotland and Merthyr Tydfil in Wales. Their aim: to listen.

“It felt like we had to address the division that was exposed,” says Norris. “At that point we didn’t know we were doing a show, we just knew we had to get out and listen.

“We asked people to talk about the area where they live, the country that they’d like to live in, leadership, and if they could say anything to one of the leaders what would it be?”

As expected, the route of these discourses took depended on the region. In Northern Ireland the responses went very heavily into the personal, whereas in Glasgow the Scottish referendum was, unsurprisingly, a talking point.

“I get the feeling that in the East Midlands and Leicester everyone literally jumped down the gatherer’s throat about the referendum, because I don’t have so much of that personal back story,” says actor Seema Bowri who plays the ensemble of Midlands voices.

“Despite the fact that we’re so socially connected, when I came to the project and listened to the East Midlands voices, as much as I wasn’t surprised that the issue was immigration, it definitely surprised me that it’s a different world there,” says Bowri.

“Living in a world where there are no white faces, where you couldn’t find a white person to talk to if you tried, made me sit up and go ‘woah ok, these are the conversations that are going on in the East Midlands because of that pool of people’. It threw me into the region from sitting in London. When you hear them say what you think they’re saying on paper, it makes that viewpoint so much more rounded – it humanizes it.”

Making all of this information interesting for the audience is the challenge, says Norris. “We have 75 people and they’re all talking about a subject about which there isn’t one person in the country who knows fuck all about it. Most people, like me, can say what they think about Brexit, or European funding or immigration control and all of it will be what we’ve read.” What it’s really about, he says, is the personal – and sometimes that’s something that can’t be quantified on paper.

“One woman in particular was the most outspoken about immigration from a right-wing, Leave perspective. But she’s also the person that has grown up in Leicester for the last 45 years and has seen the street in which she grew up totally change.

“If you read it on paper you’d think, ‘Oh I’m not sure I’d get on with her because that’s bordering on racist’. But actually, when you hear her talking she’s really passionate and it’s rooted with as much connection to the land that she’s grown up on as the woman who’s talking about what’s changed in the nature of shepherding in the hill farms of Northumberland. Or the man who was in the IRA saying what he thinks about people who are voting without researching and what the importance of nationhood really means. It’s those things that are powerful.

“This is a listening project and if there’s anything to be taken from it, it is to listen. And listen does not mean hear. It means actually stop and listen,” he says. “What comes through more than anything is a protest – not against Europe, not against immigration, but against globalisation. It is the move of modern times that strips apart communities again and again.”

There’s a bigger argument about why a well-funded arts institution like this, that calls itself national, should engage in national debate rather than just doing heritage or entertainment. “One of the arguments for us putting resource into projects like this, is that we are speaking to power, inevitably,” says Norris. “We don’t need a member of the cabinet to come through the door for that to be true, because in any audience on any night we’ll have within that people who have influence.

“Of all the people we’ve spoken to, there’s one thing they all agree on – that we were ill led after the vote and that it’s just disgraceful. Almost everywhere you look it’s as though nobody’s got a grip. In hindsight I think people realise that what they were being told was from the excesses of project fear to a lot of ambitious, self-serving rhetoric. I think most people are not stupid or racist.”

But in the end, what difference can a play really make? “I would hope that to some degree we can get people to drop that self-righteousness and certainty,” says Norris. “Because the fact is, you don’t know what it’s like to be someone else. You can judge them because you’re better educated or have a wider vision and they can judge you on the basis that you’re spoilt and stuffed full of opportunities. Even understanding that simple fact, that everyone in the country thinks they stand upon the moral high ground is perhaps the first place to get the audience to. Whatever you think about right and left wing, even as a relatively political person, just falls away in the face of the ‘human music’.”

My Country; a work in progress is at the National Theatre 28 February – 22 March before touring around the UK

Support The New European's vital role as a voice for the 48%

The New European is proud of its journalism and we hope you are proud of it too. We believe our voice is important - both in representing the pro-EU perspective and also to help rebalance the right wing extremes of much of the UK national press. If you value what we are doing, you can help us by making a contribution to the cost of our journalism.

  • Become a friend of The New European for a contribution of £48. You will qualify for a mention in our newspaper (should you wish)
  • Become a partner of The New European for a contribution of £240. You will qualify for a mention in our newspaper (should you wish) and receive a New European Branded Pen and Notebook
  • Become a patron of The New European for a contribution of £480. You will qualify for a mention in our newspaper (should you wish) and receive a New European Branded Pen and Notebook and an A3 print of The New European front cover of your choice, signed by Editor Matt Kelly

By proceeding, you agree to the New Europeans supporters club Terms & Conditions which can be found here.

Supporter Options

Mention Me in The New European

If Yes, Name to appear in The New European

Latest articles

Blow for Hard Brexit as Cabinet ‘unites’ behind transition deal

The Cabinet is “united” in backing a transitional Brexit deal which would mean continued access to migrant labour, Michael Gove has said.

What Euratom really stands for

The Euratom row lays bare the innate flaws of Brexit. But it also gives pro-Europeans their biggest chance yet to regain the initiative

How did Brexit Britain lose the spirit of the 2012 Olympics?

How did Brexit Britain lose the spirit of the 2012 Olympics?

Brexit could force UK to set up new healthcare scheme for tourists

Brussels is holding out on the government’s hopes of continuing membership of the European health insurance scheme post-Brexit.

Fox says UK does not need trade deal with Europe after Brexit

Brexiteer cabinet minister Liam Fox has reiterated the government’s widely ridiculed negotiating tactic of “no deal is better than a bad deal”.

UK and EU clash over ‘fundamental’ differences on citizens’ rights and divorce bill

The European Union’s top Brexit negotiator has demanded the government clarifies its position on citizens’ rights and stumps up a Brexit divorce bill.

Britain’s creative brilliance has taken decades to build... it could be destroyed in months

It is no accident that Britain’s creative sector has grown as borders have become more open. Now, decades of progress are in peril, says one of the world’s leading architects

We can learn from the British motor industry: Our economy needs capital and talent not slogans

The British economy can succeed. But it needs less wishful thinking and a more hard-headed assessment of the facts

Juventus is Europe’s most colourful football club

The club in Turin is a football club quite unlike any other - an institution which combines excellence and ugliness

How climate change is forcing native American culture to change

Just because Donald Trump doesn’t care about it, doesn’t mean climate change isn’t already having an impact in the US.

The Honours system is so corrupt it would be an embarrassment in Zimbabwe

The idea that the British establishment is predicated on civilised values of ‘fairness’, ‘openness’ and ‘transparency’ is beginning to unravel.

Somali pirates are back - history shows how we can stop them

The fight against the menace of modern day piracy must start on the land, not the sea

Translating for the enemy: Tempting financial services out of post-Brexit UK

For some in Europe Brexit offers an opportunity to prize business away from London and the UK.

London hit by Brexit ‘wobble’ as fewer Europeans come to work in capital

London’s economy is “wobbling” due to the aftershock of the Britain’s decision to back Brexit, according to a new report.

Online ‘echo-chambers’ are an effect of hate, not a cause

Legacy publishers such as the Mail and the Sun are condemning the environment they create

Oh shit... we’re blowing Brexit

Things are now so grim in Brexit Britain - there is no hero riding to the rescue – but it’s not too late to rethink

Remember this moment from Orwell’s 1984 and don’t let the Tories rewrite history

Really Theresa May? Consensus? With the “saboteurs”, the “enemies of the people”?

BBC and Channel 4’s obsession with so-called ‘impartiality’ is stifling true debate

Forget the social media whirlwinds around media bias, impartiality is overrated

‘EU leaders are willing to consider freedom of movement changes to stop Brexit’

It’s becoming clear what the British people want from Brexit. But they are not being given the option, says former PM Tony Blair

Brexit pathology: Leave’s latest lie shows the trouble they are in

A new Big Lie is currently entering the Big Lie lexicon. It is that 51.9% having voted Leave last June 23 – National Self-Harm Day – the number has now risen to over 80%.

Watch us on YouTube

The rollercoaster ride of Theresa May's plummeting approval ratings

Views: 242

A year of failure and fiasco in May’s Number 10

Views: 200

Tory minister Steve Baker demands the EU is to be ‘torn down’

Views: 400



Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter