Why National Theatre’s newest play is a chin-stroking
middle-of-the-road failed effort to be radical, a.k.a. reviewing “My Country”

Warning: the following review contains a lot of feelings (remember, you can’t blame me for having those! They’re feelings!) as well as valiant attempts to be fair towards creative choices made. You have been warned.

Okay, I saw “My Country” yesterday, and let’s just say, I was NOT the target audience for this play. I mean, I guess the clue was in the title. Silly me, I just pay taxes and live here, but of course it’s not “my country”.

The good things! There were good things. There were good things, as you’d expect from a National Fucking Theatre play, I suppose. Acting was great and superbly delivered, staging uncomplicated but meaningful, choreography flawless. And here’s the premise: Britannia (complete with feathered helmet) and the regions meet up to speak of the referendum and represent the people. Britannia does great impressions of Cameron, Johnson, Farage and May, while regional representatives hold up pictures of people whose words they are quoting/acting out verbatim. Caledonia, Ireland, Nothern Ireland, South West, Cymru and West Midlands (no London, purposefully so) hang out, drink some scotch, do some dancing, just to occasionally break from the seriousness of the things they are saying. They also hold up pictures of mostly White people, so nobody gets confused about whose voice really counts. (Disclaimer: this is how this looked like to me. I wasn’t able to actually count voices of colour during performance and there is no applicable data on the website – but it looked very
White. My colleague from Jobstealers’ Podcast will go on Tuesday and count to confirm).

I have learnt I don’t know British national symbols, stereotypes and in-jokes - which is fair enough. I learnt that all regions are, um, White (except West Midlands, represented by Seema Bowri). I learnt that immigrant voices are few and far between (one that stuck with me was saying that “this is not the land of milk and honey”; no voices about the terrifying experience of being voted on) and that pictures of Black/Brown British people are few and far between, with lukewarm quotes (one man saying that “it’s awkward now”). I learnt that a thoughtful audience of nodding overwhelmingly White/middle class seeming (possibly) Guardian readers will enjoy this play. (To be fair, actual Guardian reviews were not complimentary). I have checked and it will in fact tour, which is great – it’s good to see that this is not a London-only conversation, or indeed London vs regions conversation, although excluding London completely is troublesome in itself and might be going too far in the other direction. All well and good for Londoners to learn about Leave perspective, but Remain has not been well represented either — certainly not in the campaign. Is it a two-way conversation? Or an attempt to address lack of privilege/representation of Leavers’ point of view?

You see, I don’t have an issue with the play, quite. I have an issue with what it’s not saying and representing (like, the sheer freaking DIVERSITY of this society reduced to some very short soundbites); I have an issue that migrants are spoken OF, but mostly not given voices; I have an issue that the amazing platform that is National Theatre is given to a play that, despite appearances, rather confirms the state of what is. Despite the dramatic appeal made by distraught Britannia (“ARE YOU LISTENING?, she asked people in the audience and we were, but what of it…?), as well as the dramatic potential of the situation, the play’s only radicalism lies in giving voices to so-called “ordinary people”. I suppose if you’re in a London/Facebook bubble, it might be refreshing to hear this – and of course it is very important, although most of these voices have been rehashed since June. I just wish that somebody, somewhere lived up to the promise that immigrants are part of this society and as such treated as people with voices. Of course, I am somebody — which is why I do Jobstealers’ Podcast and will do a number of theatre projects — but I could have used the reassurance that the biggest theatre institution around understands this. No matter, since June I’m used to the disappointment.

Here is the thing: by using the logic of “of course we should listen to everybody, but the disenchanted are White British, so let’s talk to them first” that I feel was exemplified in the play, we are already in “Britain first” territory. And the way the texts were chosen was a little bit suspect at times – of course you want your verbatim play to be interesting and amusing, otherwise the audience will just check out, however next to some serious things that were quoted, there was a lot of “EU intervenes in the shape of bananas” jokes. Sometimes it was skirting the line of “haha, people are just so UNINFORMED, but WE know better”. There was one text that I caught that addressed the class issues in this society. There was one character that exemplified angry, resentful racism and I am thankful that it was included. There was an absolute zero of texts addressing colonialism, one or two about reasons why people are refugees (i.e. “we bombed them” reasoning, as well as some emphathetic responses to refugees); those were valuable. Perhaps I’m expecting too much from one single play which made an artistic choice to focus on people who voted (reasonable, I suppose) and White (???!!!). Verbatim play does have to reflect the people that were interviewed, and far as I can tell, knowledge/awareness of colonialism and its effects is pretty much absent from British public discourse (and apparently education as well, go figure). But I am naming the important necessary things that were included the way you name crumbs that were thrown your way – bits of the real issues that I wish were addressed properly.

The whole thing was very tasteful and “balanced” and designed to make you feel very thoughtful, but maybe not actually do anything. I am so frustrated I could scream. As a theatre goer I really want to feel represented and included. The possible critique goes “this is not about you”, and fair play, I didn’t vote, but that actually makes me feel worse. Because, ultimately, it is about me, too. I live here, I’m a part of this society, and the vote concerns my freaking life. I am the one blamed for things that actual governments are responsible for. I am not a subject here, I am an object of power. And in this context, the minor references to actual power relationships governing this society are very frustrating. Perhaps that is not what the people talked about. Perhaps, also, the conversation of what it means to be British needs to be held between British people, and I am not invited. (Your loss: outsider perspective can be quite useful). Perhaps, finally, I am presently unable to appreciate this gentle conversation: it screams half-measure to me. Could be that I’m right and things really are that dire – could also be that the direct threat to my life and wellbeing I live under makes me radicalise. Not so different from Leave voters, am I.

At the end, I’m projecting and venting my feelings onto this play. I don’t really know what the concept of “My Country” means – I’ve been trying to meaningfully engage with my Polish heritage and writing, but I’m far from achieving easy conclusions. What I do know is that I want more than this; that I feel that as a society, we need more than what was on offer on that stage. I only know that I was hoping for a “we’re in this together” conversation and I went to the theatre and encountered a “terribly sorry, you don’t count” wall of polite incomprehension; how very British. Looks like National Theatre is not for me at this stage.

I guess the clue was in the title.

Polish, artsy, frequently angry, rants, comedy, weirdness. Always revolution, sometimes naps.