Disunited Kingdom

“Remember the time before things changed? Back in the day
Everything can stay the same
Remember I came? Remember my name?
Remember my face? I don’t wanna fade away” — “Don’t Cry for Me” by Stormzy (I told you I’d work in some grime).

I have always viewed the theater as one of the best ways to teach empathy and respect for other cultures. Theater has always been political because theater is life on stage, and life is inherently political — our lives are influenced by the politics of our time. So I was curious to see British theatre post-Brexit. And although I missed “Brexit: the Musical!” at the Edinburgh Fringe, I got a fantastic taste of contrasting visions over two days on my last weekend in London.

For the most part, I did not notice a significant “Brexit” bent to the theatre scene. Of course, most shows are programmed well in advance, so it is very possible that a lot of plays written in response to the vote have just not had enough time to make it to the West End yet.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s season is Rome-themed, which is more in line with the (poorly-grounded) attempts to find mirrors of Donald Trump in ancient Roman emperors (Julius Caesar he is not), but *perhaps* they are trying to convey some message about the state of *their* nation and not America. London was a Roman town, initially… As for parallels: a huge factor in Rome’s initial success as an empire was its religious and cultural flexibility. When Rome conquered your land and set up shop, it didn’t ban your gods; it adopted them. My high school Latin teacher used to joke that Rome had a “the more, the merrier” approach to religion. And it’s reflective of its greater tolerance for other cultures. Latin was the lingua franca, of course, and Roman currency, roads, measurements, administration were used throughout its borders, but multiculturalism was celebrated, and the Empire’s strength came from the easy movement of goods and people throughout its borders — a lesson many Englishmen forgot. This is a stretch, though. Most of the plays in their season, while “Roman” (i.e. about Ancient Rome) are not political.

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The real Brexit theatre experience I had was seeing a Japanese production of Macbeth performed the night before the National Theatre previewed a new play based on the myth of Saint George and the Dragon (fittingly called “Saint George and the Dragon”).

The former was magnificent. I could understand only the occasional word of Japanese, but the production was impeccable: set, costume, blocking, make-up, and acting. Attention to detail was, for me, best represented by the actors playing the horses. Each horse was played by two people wearing a horse costume that was solid enough to actually support an actor riding on top, and so Macbeth literally rode on to the stage. What was surprising was that after he dismounted and began speaking downstage with other characters, the horses continued to act. The actors playing them had recognized that a horse doesn’t stand perfectly still — it fidgets and picks up its feet and walks in place a bit. And so they performed their horses fidgeting and picking up their feet and walking in place and shaking their heads.

The play itself is a meditation on ambition, of course, but it has immense symbolic power as a cultural artifact. It is a play by *Shakespeare*, the greatest writer in the English language, father of modern Western drama, and one of the greatest Brits in history. This play specifically is the only one to be set in Scotland and was written for the first King of England and Scotland, so it’s probably Shakespeare’s most broadly “British” play, too. And it was performed by a Japanese troupe in Japanese and with Japanese design elements. And it worked wonderfully. Now, it wasn’t commissioned in response to Brexit, but its performance and success are an argument for globalism all in themselves. We can share with each other and mutually benefit.

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Saint George, however, was clearly written with Brexit in mind. It was advertised as “a new folk tale for an uneasy nation.” And it followed George through three periods in time — the original medieval dragon-slaying time, the Industrial Revolution, and modern-day. And each time the dragon, in some form, was oppressing the people of the “town” (a metaphor for England), crushing their hope and faith in one another. The first time all it took was George’s decision to bravely decide to risk his life to fight the (literal) dragon: even before he won he had inspired the townsfolk. When he killed it, the day and town was saved, and the townsfolk promised to build a new future for themselves, while George was called away to fight more dragons.

He returns the next “year” to find the town completely changed, now Industrial Victorian Britain, and marvels at the technological wonders he sees and how far the town has come. But his old friends tell him that they’re unhappy because the dragon has returned — this time as some sort of allegory for unregulated capitalism? He no longer has a physical form, but is destroyed only when the townsfolk destroy some contracts or laws that had been giving him his power. And so the day is saved again, the townsfolk re-imagine their future again, and George is called away to fight more dragons again.

He returns one more time, only now it’s present-day, and people have lost their pride in their once-great nation, most explicitly demonstrated by their (justifiable) lack of faith in the national football (soccer) squad. George is aghast that they have no sense of patriotism and that they’d criticize the chaps on the pitch playing their hearts out while carrying the hopes of the nation on their back; the play responds by depicting the English squad choking and giving up the winning goal in injury time. One patron of the pub starts to give an impromptu lecture about the (many) sins of the British Empire: slavery, colonialism, pollution, discrimination etc. and is nearly punched by the middle-aged working class bloke trying to watch the match. “How dare you disrespect our troops?” or some such idiotic and irrelevant blather familiar to anyone following the Kaepernick protests.

Unfortunately, the play chooses not to engage further in actually examining the ethics of the British Empire, past or present, but moves back to George, robbing the exchange of most of its value. Neither character is actually developed (most characters were deliberately written as archetypes and named as such: “Healer”, “Butcher”, “Blacksmith”, in keeping with the element of myth in the story’s premise), and the argument is never entertained again, leaving the audience with a murky view of what was intentioned and what they should take away. A bare acknowledgment that these discussions are happening is not enough for a play that clearly seeks to meditate on questions of leadership and national identity.

In any case, George starts to realize that the “dragon” is back once more, only now he lives inside all the people, making them just a little more jaded, day-by-day, just a little more worn-down and stressed and angry and bitter. And then the play falls apart — he tells the townspeople his discovery; they say they’ve known this all along and there’ s no way to get rid of the dragon, they just have to keep fighting him internally every day, pushing through; George doesn’t accept this, believes they’ve all been manipulated by the dragon, and tries to murder everyone until his girlfriend kills him in self-defense. “What now?” someone asks. “Close your eyes.” is the response. The same prompt given each time they previously re-imagined their future.

What now indeed. What a mess. What a cop out. No answer is given or even attempted by the play. Is the modern “dragon” neoliberal economics and capitalism? Is it mental illness? Is it just weariness with the terrible record of the national football squad? Who knows. Is it simplistic to attribute the ills of a nation to a vague allegorical mythical beast instead of human beings? Yes. Is the death of St. George a symbolic death of…nationalism? A past England? Religion as a prominent political force in the country? We can’t tell. The play fails with its allegory.

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Now, to be sure, Saint George could have instead been a better written play, one that did formulate a specific response to Brexit. But as it was, it looked inward and backward to find its direction; whereas Macbeth, while not even trying to address Brexit, still managed to do so by virtue of its existence alone, by looking outward. Perhaps one reason why Saint George failed was because it was so narrow. We are stronger in diversity, Britain is stronger in diversity, and theater is stronger in diversity.

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