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Rufus Norris makes theatre out of Brexit: 'Theatres are the echo chamber of the leftist bubble'

The wind blows harder there than elsewhere. The light is greyer there than further afield. London's south bank, for years 'the other side' of the English capital's posh city centre, has been the subject of several waves of regeneration in the last century. It began in 1951 with the construction of concert hall 'Southbank Centre', followed in 1976, after years of wrangling, by the mega-theatre of The National Theatre. The turn of the millennium saw the addition of Shakespeare's nostalgically rebuilt Globe and the post-industrial wonder of the Tate Modern.

The latter two projects were a response to the first two, a kilometre away. Post-war Brutalism was not very popular in the world of the 1980s. Meanwhile, the style is loved again by architecture freaks. Hard concrete buildings with a ruthless look, which have also often been used as backdrops for dystopian science fiction films. Cumbernauld, a Scottish 1960s city much more extreme in its design than the original Bijlmermeer, is still a deadly failure. A place where public spaces are shunned, and people hide behind shutters in blocks that were once meant to be a worker's paradise.

Logical choice

Cumbernauld, shopping centre. Photo: wikimedia commons

And even though brutalism may be hip again, and despite a renovation a few years ago, the National Theatre still does not look like a building that shouts "Welcome!" loudly and lightly to droves of spectators. The six theatres are hard to find, and that is especially true of the small venue where 'My Country, a work in progress' is playing. The show, which might be considered Britain's main theatre's answer to 'Brexit' is in a side street, next to the stage entrance and behind a spartan foyer.

'My Country' has been invited by the Holland Festival because of the festival theme 'Democracy'. In terms of content, it is a very logical choice. In terms of form, too, actually. Anyone who wants to know how the British deal with themselves and how they turn something so actuality into theatre should go and see it. The show is a kind of allegory. Characters represent British tracts of land. In a courtroom drama, they debate the future outside the EU.

Moral Highground

I spoke to director Rufus Norris the morning after the performance in his office in the concrete structure with sweeping views over the Thames and the City of London. Curious as I was about the reasons for a set-up like this: rather neat, traditional and even a bit folksy. Not something you expect from Britain's most prestigious company. The artistic director of The National Theatre explains that that was precisely a conscious choice: 'We are here in a bubble. London is a bubble.' He points to the other side and his own place. 'We are on the moral highground and look down on the rest. Theatres are the echo chambers of that bubble. This is where the biggest city left wing meets.'

National Theatre (right) on the Thames in London. Photo: Wijbrand Schaap

'The Brexit vote was a protest against the elite, against London. And in turn, everyone who had anything to say in the arts was outraged by the outcome. Some also became just plain insulting to the LEAVE VOTERS. Called them self-righteous racists. Things like that. I think that's unwise. You can't treat half the population like that.

'I felt that listening was the most important thing we could do. So we sent people out to go and listen to local people in all those communities where voters lived. I wanted to hear where those divisions were. So we sent interviewers to Derry, to Edinburgh, to Leicester. We looked for the small communities, through people who lived there.'

Battle of the Somme

Somme commemoration, photo: wikimedia commons

Norris does not deny being part of the bubble from which he is trying to escape. He only discovered this properly when he was working on a project to commemorate the Battle of the Somme, exactly 100 years ago last July 1. That battle, during which 20,000 British young men were killed in a single morning in the muddy hill country of northern France, was commemorated by the sudden appearance of young volunteers in First World War uniforms at 27 sites across England. It was a shock and thus an impressive tribute to the time when Europe was divided to the bone. Through his work, he already had some sense of the atmosphere in the country.

A week before the commemoration was the referendum on the Brexit, an event he himself experiences as almost traumatic. But he mainly blames the group of people to which he himself belongs: 'My project on the Somme was very well received. The result was also that we suddenly had a network spread all over the country. I already had the idea then that there would be more hidden under the referendum vote. It was something everyone had missed: the media, politics. And meanwhile, we all consider ourselves extremely responsible people.'

He turned it into a project. He sent researchers to all corners of the country, tasked with listening to the people there. 'Leicester, for example, we chose because not only did a lot of immigrants wound up there, but also because the closure of the mines created high unemployment and at the same time a lot of European aid flowed into the city. Derry is right on the border of Northern Ireland and Ireland. That will now be on the border of the EU. while there the Troubles have only just ended.'

Another country

Critics did not hear their own voices. But they are London. And that is a different country from England.
In those corners, the correspondents had to look for both supporters and opponents. 'All in all, that produced a mountain of material. We considered presenting all that material; in a big marathon, but that was already happening elsewhere: the BBC was working on such a project, for instance.'

Norris chose a different set-up: touring all over the country: 'Ultimately, it was important to me to show this play in all corners of England. That's partly why we didn't include voice of Westminster, the government, the big city, in the story. After all, you already hear that all day long through the media. Many critics find that a flaw. Those rejected the piece partly because of that. They did not hear their own voice. But they are London. And that's a different country from England.'

Commonly understood English

Then again, the theatrical translation of the project is striking. In any case, something you wouldn't easily come up with as a Dutch theatre-maker: All the actors in this play represent a region and they also speak with that region's accent. For Norris, this was a necessity: 'The way I speak stems from much more than just the area itself. I'm from the West Midlands and when I speak in my own dialect you can hear that I don't breathe through my nose. That gives it a special sound. That someone from the West Midlands doesn't use their nose is because of the sugar beet cultivation in that region. That smells terrible. That's why the language sounds like that. And that's why you have to let that language be heard on a stage.'

'That's more natural than the Received Pronounciation ('Common Civilised English') with which British actors are usually on stage. Audiences in the region trust people who speak in their own accent.'

Fishing village

But then again: how do you turn that into exciting theatre? 'When I started listening to those 100 hours of interviews, I was very disappointed at first. All I heard were the familiar stories from the media. Prejudices that were not about what people experienced themselves, but what they had heard in their own media. After a while, I started paying attention to the things people were really dealing with. A fisherman talking about fishing laws. That made news to people in London. A fishing village that was no longer a fishing village thanks to legislation from Europe, but was now living off tourism. I like hearing someone talk about that, rather than immigration, which they don't notice at all.

At the same time, a woman from Leicester can talk a lot about immigration, as Leicester has changed from a city of 15% immigrants to a city of 52% immigrants in 15 years. Those are insane numbers. Those mistakes by the city council obviously cause problems.'


I have to keep them on their toes. 'The Northeast' was a little too bright yesterday, for example.
So in the end, that makes for a curious piece of theatre that is very much about England, and yet every now and then it seems like those London actors are making fun of their local character. In the performance I saw, this was what happened, admits Rufus Norris: 'In London, audiences tend to laugh about all these local people, and actors can sometimes be tempted to play on those laughs. I have to keep them on their toes. 'The Northeast' was a bit too bright yesterday, for example. She got a bit too shouty, too aggressive. So I have to curb that. but the boy from Scotland is again very well dosed.'

My Country is thus in every sense a work in progress by Rufus Norris: it is still being tinkered with every day. Remains that it can be difficult for a non-British viewer to understand everything. There is a lot of information in it that you only realise if you watch the BBC daily: for example, an excerpt in from the maiden speech of Jo Cox, the British member of the House of Commons who was murdered by a Brexit extremist just before the referendum. This in turn is linked to a speech by Nigel Farage, who speeched shortly after the result that victory had been achieved without a shot being fired. Which, because of that murder of Cox, was therefore untrue and thus generated a lot of anger.

The great absentee

Europe, by the way, is the big absentee in the whole piece. 'My Country, a work in progress' is about Great Britain as the British see it. There, Europe today is once again just 'The Continent' that it always was before joining the EU.

Does Norris have any hope left? When I spoke to him in March, the future was certain: Theresa May had just triggered Article 50. Now everything is uncertain. Britons will elect a new parliament on 9 June. Even a week before the election, the outcome is uncertain, mainly because of the attack on a pop concert in Manchester. Perhaps during the second preview of My Country, history will change completely again. How does Norris himself stand on that? From the concrete fortress on the south bank of the Thames, he sees things looking bleak. Bubbles do not appear to be the lightly breakable bubbles from which they derive their name, rather bunkers and trenches.


'Ultimately, the Brexit vote not about Europe or about immigration, but about fear of the future, fear of losing your own community. Fear of losing certainties. I myself am passionately in favour of Europe. I am deeply disappointed in the British media, which did not set out to spread honest information. Still in power is the same group of old rulers, left and right, who have put us in this miserable position.'

Whether that will still be the case after this performance at the Holland Festival? In any case, it will be two special evenings.

Good to know

My Country can be seen at the Holland Festival on 7 and 8 June. Information: 

Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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