My Country: A Work in Progress is an oral tapestry woven by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy from knitted squares of conversation collected by National Theatre researchers from pockets of population across the country around the Brexit referendum in June 2016.  A year on, it has been spread before us again as the NT, commendably with the same cast that performed in on the South Bank, takes on a grand national tour.  Well, Cambridge and Stratford.

I caught it at Stratford, a theatre with a strong left-wing tradition pioneered by Joan Littlewood‘s Theatre Workshop and with one of the most commendably diverse audience catchments in the country.  On the anniversary of the vote, and at the commencement of our actual negotiations with Brussels, you’d expect a keen and possibly partisan audience.  Nope, it was half-full and 95% white.

So simply staged with a few school-type desks, ballot boxes and stacking chairs that you felt at once it has a long-term future in amateur dramatics, My Country is presented in the simplest of formats: a woman representing Britannia has called a meeting of the regional parts of the United Kingdom to hear the results of the referendum, and by sharing the testimony of their citizenry, pro and con, native and migrant, working and not, forthright or timid – to take the national temperature.  Rectally, if need be – not all the language is polite.

The actors are what you’d expect from the NT, crisp, clear, clever at a variety of accents and nuanced variations for the sub-characters within the Welsh or the Geordie or the Scots set, but Duffy’s skill is to treat this more symphonically and periodically to bring together a beautiful cacophony of voice which may become lyric, or chanting, or harmonic, and then to spread it apart again like a wave breaking on shingle.  It’s clever and it relieves what could be repetitious.

You pick from it what you like, but somehow the specific opinions of the contributors are less dramatic than their collective force and the music of the language.  Duffy wouldn’t have a poet’s ear if she didn’t let the Scot quote Burns or the Welshman Dylan Thomas – but there are moments when Penny Layden as Britannia keeps saying ‘Listen, listen’ to change the mood, and isn’t that also the glorious influence of Under Milk Wood?

Layden is superb, her civil servant’s suit and reticence disguising some sharply observed characterisations, and her vocal technique and body language when voicing Boris, or Nigel Farage are both subtle and spot on.  Stuart McQuarrie brings class and humour to his Scots representative which might now be an homage to the career of ousted SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson.

There was a moment when I pondered what it was the verbatim speech and its emphasised accented delivery by actors reminded me of.  There are five or ten minutes when you can do that.  And then it hit me – Duffy has referenced Nick Park’s ‘Creature Comforts‘ short films where zoo animals are voiced with pedestrian opinions.

Reaction to the piece is more divided than the 52:48 split between Leave and Remain, with more strident writers finding it trite and less useful than it might have been had it been made before the vote.  Heaven knows, it’s a thousand times more useful and entertaining than the tide of hastily-written ‘topical’ one-sided polemic that infested Edinburgh Fridge a month or so after the referendum itself.

I hope it is genuinely ‘A Work in Progress’ and that director Rufus Norris revisits it perhaps to incorporate the angrier, louder, debate that seems to have ensued once the referendum result was announced.

until June 24