Friday, 7 April 2017

My Country: A Dramaturgy in Progress: Rufus Norris on tour

Created in collaboration with the Citizens Theatre and seven other UK arts organisations in association with Cusack Projects Limited
MY COUNTRY; A WORK IN PROGRESSa new play directed by Rufus Norris
in the words of people across the UK and Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy
Tue 28 March – Mon 1 April 

The National Theatre has collaborated for the first time with the Citizens Theatre to create a new play inspired by the recent EU Referendum. The views of people from across the UK, including Glasgow, have been interwoven by Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, and will be presented on stage at the Citizens Theatre from 28 Mar – 1 Apr, beginning the production’s UK tour following dates in London.

In the days following the Brexit vote, a team from the National Theatre of Great Britain spoke to people nationwide, aged 9 to 97, to hear their views. In a series of interviews, they heard opinions that were honest, emotional, funny and sometimes extreme.  

These testimonials are blended with speeches from political leaders to create a new play by Carol Ann Duffy, Poet Laureate, and directed by National Theatre Artistic Director Rufus Norris.

One of the most prominent themes within the performances that I get to see in Scotland over the last few years has been the question of political engagement - whether that is explicitly political plays, the use of verbatim strategies to explore an idea or an openness to new audiences who wouldn't usually visit theatre. This does lead me to a fairly simplistic first question:what kind  of role does theatre play in the public discussion of ideas?

It can, and I think should, play a pivotal role in public discussion. Theatres should be a place of debate and provocation and I don’t think this comes solely down to verbatim work or overtly political pieces, it’s about strong, nationally representative narratives.  For me, it’s not bums on seats, more eyes on stalks: in the work we create we should be making people sit up and engage.

There also seems to be a danger that theatre attracts a particular kind of audience - its demographic could be described as relatively fixed and even niche. How does My Country avoid falling into the trap of 'preaching to the converted' - of representing opinions and views that are already accepted and understood by the audience?

It’s a key challenge. No matter my own political viewpoint, I did
very much want this to be as balanced a piece as possible. We have kept a keen eye on how much verbatim we had on the remain side and how much on the leave side to make sure we were keeping the equilibrium, and accurately representing the vast divisions and differences in opinion that the referendum highlighted. 

However, we can make the show as balanced as we like but it won’t be so if we don’t get a mixed audience. And that really does depend on an ever-evolving press and marketing strategy to reach out and make sure the audience is as broad as possible.

The combination of a poet and verbatim source material suggests a particular process: how did the development of the text evolve through this process?

It evolved constantly. Firstly, Carol Ann and I prepared a rough transcription of all the interviews that we had gathered. Once we got the actors in the room, they all developed various voices from the regions that they were representing. From there it was essentially trial and error as we found a structure and weaved the moments where the voices spoke to each other and would hopefully speak to an audience. 

Carol Ann talks about ‘human music’ and so around week 4 of rehearsals she told me to sod off and start directing so that she could fit the words and the verbatim sections together in a way that would make the piece sing. The poetry sections she wrote very quickly when inspired by what was emerging.

There's also a question about 'theatricality': what impact does the fact of performance have on the 'truthfulness' of the source material: do you feel that it gains or loses anything in the telling?

Yes, it is a tricky line, theatre and performance is interpretative - it has to be. And that goes back to theatre being a place for public discussion. If all we offered was fact, or straightforward truths, then it wouldn’t be provoking a conversation, there’d be nothing to answer back. You always have to be aware with verbatim work that, whilst the raw material is from a real, rather than a fictional place, what is true for one person is the opposite for another. One of the aims of this piece is to help people listen – and to understand how opposing views can be ‘true’ to the person’s life experience.

How does a work that has the potential to be very politically charged like this fit in with the vision of the National Theatre?

There was a huge backlash against the echo-chamber of London after the EU referendum and perhaps rightly so. It would be so easy for the National Theatre, with its big concrete home on the South Bank, to fall into being London-centric, but that is entirely against our remit and something we work steadfastly against.

However, I think it’s less the political charge of this work that is ‘national’, and more its process. Listening was such a key driving force behind the play and sending out the gatherers to interview and record how people were feeling all over the UK – about their lives, their home, their region, their politicians and of course, eventually, Brexit, was an attempt to reach and listen to parts of this nation that perhaps didn’t feel like anyone was. 

We weren’t sure at the time that these voices would make it into a production, we just wanted to listen and to archive. When we did decide to turn it all into a show, we knew that we would need actors from the variety of different regions that we’d visited, and that it would need to go on tour. It needed to be a nationwide process.

  - And- forgive me indulging my obsession - is there any particular dramaturgical process that inspired and/or formed the production?

I have worked with verbatim before on LONDON ROAD, and the genre does, of course, have its own dramaturgical demands as there is always a danger that the work might be dry. You have to really study the material and allow it to inform the shape, rather than imposing a preconceived idea. Finding a framing device was also important; again, this came from the work itself. The first time I met the gatherers, who had done the actual interviews, I was really taken with their passion and commitment to all the people they had listened to. Carol Ann and I decided that they, in some way, should be the frame. And they are.

Of the collaboration, Dominic Hill, Artistic Director of the Citizens Theatre said, ‘I have never known a time when people are so engaged, angry, frustrated or excited about what it going on in the world. It feels like the referendum voted unleashed these feelings. The Citizens Theatre has a duty to respond to these events – to offer a platform for debate and argument and to create opportunities for imagining, understanding and listening to differing opinions. That is why I’m so thrilled that we are part of ‘My Country’. We are at the heart of a Glasgow community - this will be a chance to listen to that community and to other voices from all across the country.’

Cast for My Country; a work in progress includes:  Seema Bowri, Cavan Clarke, Laura Elphinstone Adam Ewan, Penny Layden, Christian Patterson and playing the voice of Caledonia, Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama alumnus Stuart McQuarrie.

Artistic Director of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris, said, ‘One of my ambitions for the National Theatre is to make it truly national and through collaboration, embrace the creativity and opinion around the UK.  The Brexit vote unleashed a host of questions about our country, way beyond the issue of Britain's role in Europe. It articulated a deep disaffection.  Those elements provoked a need and opportunity to create a piece of theatre that responds to that palpable sense of frustration and disillusionment.  Art has always responded to what is happening now and it's what I hope we achieve with My Country.’

The production is created in collaboration with eight UK arts organisations in association with Cusack Projects Limited

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