Watch the trailer for Brexit Shorts
Nine leading playwrights from around the UK have written a major new series of online dramas responding to the causes and consequences of the EU referendum result. Brexit Shorts: Dramas from a Divided Nation, a co-production by the Guardian and Headlong theatre company, is launched on the Guardian’s website on Monday. Kristin Scott Thomas, Penelope Wilton, Joanna Scanlan and Steffan Rhodri are among the stars performing the monologues by writers including Abi Morgan, Meera Syal, Maxine Peake and David Hare.
In Hare’s drama, Time to Leave, Scott Thomas plays a leave voter who reflects that, a year on, the result “doesn’t seem to have made anyone happy”. She concludes: “We voted to leave Europe. But that’s not what we wanted. We wanted to leave England.” Hare says he believes the outcome of this month’s general election is “proof that the country is not gung-ho for leaving the EU regardless” and a “reality check for that part of the country that behaved as if this issue had been settled definitively by the referendum. It left the country as divided as it has always been. Now there is some acknowledgment from the political establishment that the country is divided and that whatever deal they come up with is something they will have to sell not just to the right wing of the Tory party but to the whole country.”
When a country is divided, says Hare, it can be “led by a warrior or a conciliator” and he considers it “perfectly plain” that Theresa May is not a conciliator. Referring to the prime minister’s “let’s get to work” speech the day after the election, in which she failed to acknowledge the loss of her overall majority, he said: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody in politics behave with such ill grace.” Commenting on David Cameron’s call for May to consider a cross-party approach to Brexit, Hare said that May is “not a national leader, she’s a party leader. She’s the leader of the angry faction, not a leader of the country.”
Hare described the aftermath of the Brexit result as the most depressing time in his life. Abi Morgan, whose screenplays include The Iron Lady and Suffragette, says that in the days after the referendum, she felt “heartbreak and a huge sense of responsibility. How could we have got it so wrong? How could I have been so complacent?” Morgan’s monologue for Brexit Shorts, The End, is directed by Headlong’s artistic director Jeremy Herrin and frames the UK’s relationship with the EU as a failed marriage. Penelope Wilton plays a woman who has been left by her husband after 43 years of marriage and is anticipating a costly divorce.
After the Brexit vote, Morgan says she “kept on thinking of that Robin Williams quote that divorce is like ripping your heart out through your wallet”. Assessing Britain’s relationship with the EU, she says: “We have had faults and of course things haven’t been perfect. But the biggest element of any marriage is communication. That’s how you breed intimacy. I think somehow we lost our communication and therefore we lost contact with people and how they feel about the world.”
Morgan believes that “people in our country are feeling bored and isolated and marginalised. That’s when extremist views brew and grow and prosper.” Hare comments that Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the French presidential election and the victory in the Netherlands for the anti-fascist vote disproved the idea that a wave of rightwing populism is about to sweep through Europe. But he believes that the idea of Britain as “a modern state and, specifically, a multicultural state” died with the Brexit result, and he was alarmed by the amount of support there had been for Marine Le Pen among the UK’s “spoilt, ahistorical ruling class who have forgotten what we fought the second world war for – and who now seem to think that fascism is absolutely fine as long as it’s nationalist and as long as it closes borders”. Hare adds: “I am completely bemused by what England – and it is specifically England – now thinks it is. I thought we fought an anti-fascist war in the 1940s and that we defined ourselves by our opposition to nazism … I don’t see what Britain’s idea of itself is now except a regressive fantasy about a place that never really existed.”
The Brexit Shorts explore complex issues of national identity and conflict from a range of striking perspectives. The monologues are predominantly set in areas of personal significance to the playwrights, and many of the films were shot on location. Maxine Peake’s play, Shattered, stars Nasser Memarzia as an immigration lawyer in Salford. Bronagh Gallagher performs Stacey Gregg’s script, Your Ma’s a Hard Brexit, which was filmed along Northern Ireland’s peace lines. James Graham – whose political dramas include This House, about the hung parliament of the 1970s – has set his short, Burn, in his native Nottinghamshire. In the film, an internet troll played by Joanna Scanlan (No Offence) pits leavers against remainers on social media.
Meera Syal performs her own script, Just a T-shirt, about a racist attack in the West Midlands. The Pines, written by Gary Owen, stars Steffan Rhodri as a Welsh dairy farmer reflecting on his industry’s labyrinthine subsidies system and the real cost of a flat white. In Permanent Sunshine by AL Kennedy, filmed on location in Glasgow, Line of Duty’s Scott Reid plays the mercurial Chummy, who accosts the viewer and proceeds to demolish politicians across the board. Charlene James’s play Go Home, performed by Coronation Street’s Dean Fagan, charts Brexit’s impact on a young man’s romance. The nine films are produced by the Guardian’s Jess Gormley and the directors are Headlong’s associate director Amy Hodge, Jeremy Herrin, Elen Bowman and Maxine Peake.
The first set of Brexit Shorts will be launched online today, with a second set released next week.