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Andrzej Lukowski: Get over the idea of The Great Brexit Play – we don’t need it

A scene from My Country: A Work in Progress, the National Theatre’s response to Brexit, in 2017. Photo: Tristram Kenton

And so we head to the polling booths for Thursday’s European elections. Parliamentary democracy has still failed to sort out Brexit. But wait! Has anybody thought of getting a playwright in to fix it?

Yes – yes they have. In a March column for The Stage [1], Richard Jordan bemoaned the lack of a big state-of-the-nation play about Brexit and suggested UK theatre had missed a trick. In April, Telegraph critic Dominic Cavendish kicked off his review of the National Theatre’s revival of Caryl Churchill’s peerless Top Girls [2] by lambasting the NT for not having any plays about Brexit on.

This month, Lyn Gardner used her Stage column to point to Hull-based company Middle Child’s Us Against Whatever [3] as being the sort of drama about Brexit Britain that the NT (a whipping boy in all three pieces) should be snapping up.

Lyn Gardner: Theatre’s still an echo chamber – it’s time to listen to outside voices [4]

Now, it might be unfair to suggest any of the three authors are actually expecting a playwright to ‘fix’ anything, but their responses do feel kind of symptomatic of theatre’s interminable inferiority complex regarding its own relevance.

Where are the great albums about Brexit? Where are the great films about Brexit? Where are the great novels about Brexit? Where are the great restaurants about Brexit? As far as I am aware, literally nobody is asking these questions. And yet to a varying degree, the theatre community has been beating itself up about its lack of response to Brexit pretty much since the referendum result rolled in.

I am here to say this: “Chill out guys. Nobody needs you to write a Brexit play. In fact, it’s probably best if you didn’t.”

One thing worth noting is that there have, in fact, been numerous Brexit plays including the National Theatre‘s much-maligned My Country: A Work In Progress [5], staged a reasonably respectable nine months after the referendum vote, and met with a total lack of enthusiasm.

The show pretty much exemplifies the problem with the subject: the overwhelmingly anti-Brexit theatre establishment doesn’t want to produce work demonising the imagined salt-of-the-earth 52%, so instead set out on a fairly boring effort to try and understand them. (It’s worth noting the NT also staged Rob Drummond’s The Majority [6] – a second – albeit lowkey – play about Brexit).

The subtext of a lot of the commentary is that lots of people would like James Graham to write a big, meaty, political thriller about Brexit. This is understandable: he did write a TV show on the subject, Brexit: The Uncivil War. And if you want a chuckle, look at his Twitter mentions: an endless stream of people telling the poor guy that he should write a play about basically anything that has ever happened in British politics.

But the main point is that Brexit hasn’t happened yet, and is an endlessly developing situation that nobody understands. The idea that A Very Perceptive Play will nail Brexit, when nobody even knows if it’s going to happen, feels optimistic.

Enough cynicism, though. The magic of theatre is its malleability. Why isn’t Shakespeare writing plays about the succession crisis?, Elizabethan audiences may or may not have huffed. In fact, he probably wrote more plays about succession crises than any other playwright in history – he was just smart enough not to set them in contemporary Britain.

You know what’s a good drama about Brexit? Richard II, astutely revived by both Shakespeare’s Globe [7] and the Almeida [8] in the last few months. You know what’s a really good drama about Brexit? Sweat [9] – Lynn Nottage’s masterpiece about the decline of industrial America, which transfers to the West End in June.

Theatre is relevant if it’s resonant with the times, not because it seeks to literally describe them. I’m sure at some point a great Brexit play will play to great acclaim on the National Theatre stage. But, seriously, there’s no hurry.

Andrzej Lukowski is theatre editor at Time Out London. Read more of his columns at thestage.co.uk/author/andrzej-lukowski/ [10]