JUST before Christmas, Rufus Norris spent a week in Fife listening to the 300 hours of interviews that had been recorded for My Country: A Work in Progress, the post-Brexit state of the nations verbatim show he was developing with the National Theatre of Great Britain. It was during this seasonal sabbatical that the enormity of the show, which arrives at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow next week, hit home.
As artistic director of the NToGB, Norris is the head of an institution housed on London's South Bank, and which arguably goes some way to defining the public face of a liberal middle-class elite. Now here he was, listening intently to the voices of those across the length and breadth of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales who may not have ever graced that institution's brutalist portals. Hearing these people's words while holed up in a place where some of the interviewees aged between nine and 97 might well reside, and with a rather quainter kind of metropolis just across the Forth Bridge, lent clarity and meaning to Norris' quest. Not least because the majority of those who make up Scotland's electorate who bothered to vote in the EU referendum were in favour of remaining.
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Since then, Norris has been working with the UK's Glasgow-born Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and seven actors to knit together a script that combines the interviews - conducted in partnership with seven other organisations across the UK's nations and regions including the Citz - with political speeches. Combined, the play presents an unsentimental portrait of life in today's post-Brexit limbo, where all the frustrations that influenced the vote may or may not have come home to roost.
“It's a sorrowful love poem to Britain,” says Norris of a script that was only pulled together a week prior to its London opening before it heads out on a tour of its associate venues. “For something like that to emerge from the experience is quite surprising, and in some ways it's quite a simple play, in that it's not all bells and whistles. For the actors, however, it's a huge challenge, because these people never talk with each other.”
This too is a symbol of the sort of divisiveness that exists across Britain's nations and regions that took what Norris acknowledges as “a political bubble that exists within the M25” even more by surprise. Since the vote, some of those in favour of leaving the EU and who are effectively on the winning side have been left as disillusioned and as disenfranchised as those who voted remain. It is this in part that prompted Norris to attempt to give them voice by way of My Country.
“The political fallout that came after the result, and the vitriol that followed exposed the division that had maybe been hidden up until that point,” says Norris. “Following on so soon after the Scottish referendum was interesting, because that seemed like a fairly intelligent debate, and people on the whole seemed to be voting from an informed point of view, but Brexit was different. Brexit exposed the need for the metropolitan centre not to throw stones, but to shut up and listen for a change.”
While there were plenty of stones thrown from all sides during the Scottish independence referendum, Norris' point about very localised divides still stands. How this can be transformed into a piece of theatre without taking sides is something else again.
“We had a different script every day,” says Norris. “Sometimes it was completely new. That script came out of interviews done by eight or nine gatherers, who might do about 20 interviews in each area. The gatherers were very passionate about the material they brought back, and sometimes felt reticent about handing over their material to us in case all we might come up with was a liberal bubble, creature comforts point of view. Out of that we had a combination of me trying to structure things, and Carol Ann bringing in a poetry and a human music drawn from a cast who'd developed this deeper knowledge of what they were saying from one area or another because they were from there.”
With Scots actor Stuart McQuarrie playing Caledonia in a play in which Britannia also inevitably appears, My Country sounds doubly pertinent. With Article 50 looking likely to be invoked at Westminster to start the wheels turning to implement Brexit, yesterday's announcement that the Scottish Government will seek a second Scottish independence referendum has changed things again.
“Everyone we spoke to in Scotland about Brexit talked about it in relation to the Scottish referendum,” says Norris, “and there was a lot of anger there. If they'd known what was going to happen with Brexit then they might not have voted the way they did. Scottish people we spoke to on the whole were better informed than in some other areas. There was a much more politicised environment, and people were much more engaged with notions of nationhood and community. Then you listen to the interviews we did in Derry-Londonderry, and notions of nationhood move onto a totally different level. But in terms of breaking out of a liberal bubble, the majority of people in the UK who voted were for leave, and the majority of the people in the play are pro-leave as well. Despite this, things may not be as clear cut as they seem.
“There are things everyone agreed on,” says Norris, “and what became clear is that everyone's opinions and experiences were rooted in where they live. So someone who's from a farming community will have a completely different experience to someone living in a city. When they talked about things that didn't directly connect with them, they tended to speak in soundbites, and which came from the commentary and the misinformation from both sides. As soon as people started talking about something from their own experience, it became something that was much more real.”
The choice of My Country's sub-title of A Work in Progress was deliberate.
“You know you're never going to get there,” says Norris, “and that's as true of making a piece of theatre in this way as it is of whatever happens next in the country. Theresa May has said she's going to see Brexit through, but the devil of course comes in the detail, and our show is an exercise in listening.
“On the one hand, taking Brexit forward appears to be obeying the population's choice, but on another, it's not going any deeper than that. For most people I suspect Brexit isn't about exiting Europe. It's about more fundamental things that people are unhappy about, and which are about people's communities falling apart. At the moment, nine months after the vote, we've still not heard anything about how those communities need to be prioritised on a deeper level. Everyone we spoke to talked about the importance of the NHS and the importance of integrating immigrants who are already here, but that still hasn't been looked at yet. It's important that the voices that are heard in My Country are listened to, whatever happens next.”
My Country: A Work in Progress, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, March 28-April 1; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, May 11-13.