The Brexit referendum was an ill-considered idea that went badly wrong for those who conceived it. And I fear the same can be said of this play about it.
It must have sounded a perfect proposition. Send researchers out into the land to interview ordinary people about how they voted (and why) and feed their views back to the Nation in a verbatim stage play; laced together with purple prose from the country’s Poet Laureate. But the problems pile up.
Carol Ann Duffy’s searching words do go a long way towards expressing how the Nation views itself right now (the self-satisfaction or the shame) but the testimony of the ‘ordinary’ people served up on stage tells us nothing we haven’t heard in a hundred radio phone-ins. There are memorable moments; an Asian immigrant realising Britain is not the land of milk and honey; a teenage boy explaining why he likes Mythyr Tydfil; a countryman pointing out that the art of shepherding has diminished so much the sheep are actually astonished when they see you. But much of the arguments are so tired and familiar, they made me question the questions being asked.
And once the testimonies had been collected, I would expect them to have been treated with respect. Oral History is only truly genuine when it is left unedited. This is impossible when they became art of course; but the restraint of the editor’s hand is crucial. Here, he or she feeds them into a mincing machine. So, stories from Londonderry, Gateshead, Salisbury and Scotland are sliced into each other. If they amounted to a revelatory, universal, point then the practice could be vindicated. Instead, the process strips the words of their provenance. The original speakers (whose photographs we are shown) are ill-used and I was offended on their behalf. At times it was a bit like watching Nick Park’s ‘Creature Comfort’ adverts.
And I wondered why this project had resulted in a stage play? The benefit, of course, is that there in an audience to react to it. But that requires the actors to play to the gallery….and so the oral history is further distorted. For example; the simple statements of that 13-year-old from Mythyr are delivered by a big, burly and very fine Welsh actor called Christian Patterson. In his mouth, the boy’s lines seem naively feeble. At the very end of the play we actually (in passing) hear the boy say them himself … and his heart-felt honesty shines through.
Elsewhere, racial stereotyping leaks into the play; Asian accents, Scottish whiskey, Irish dancing, and a vivid description of a Geordie pizza (which is a pizza base with chips on top). Why are we being subjected to this? To up the entertainment value? Instead we get a painfully prejudicial play about prejudice. The greatest irony is a substantial passage complaining about how politicians misrepresent the people … in a play that is doing much the same.
The actors give it their all and save the show from its own excesses. Seema Bowri does protect the integrity of the non-Caucasian population. Laura Elphinstone allows us to laugh with the rough and ready Tynesiders … and not at them. And Penny Layden’s penetrating impression of the key politicians in the sorry Brexit mess are jolly funny; as Boris, Nigel and the arch-instigator David try to justify themselves in their own words.
In one of the wittier moments, the referendum is described as the biggest stitch up since the Bayeux Tapestry. This play would benefit from some serious unpicking. As it is, it’s a wonderful opportunity; sadly missed.