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We need to talk about Brexit: Britannia hears her people in new play

By Estelle Shirbon

GLOUCESTER, England (Reuters) - Brendon O'Donnell voted to leave the European Union because he felt British money should go to struggling communities or local hospitals rather than Brussels, and his voice was not being heard.

Now it will be heard in theaters across Britain along with the voices of dozens of other people from different corners of the country, in the first play to tackle Brexit.

"My Country; a work in progress", opens at London's National Theatre this week before touring nationwide. It weaves verbatim quotes from members of the public with speeches from politicians, all spoken by actors.

The play also includes new material by Carol Ann Duffy, who as Britain's official poet laureate since 2009 has chronicled important national events in verse.

The project started in the heated days after the EU referendum last June, when the theater sent out a team of "gatherers" to record the views and stories of Britons from different walks of life and from both sides of the debate.

One of the places targeted was Gloucester, an ancient cathedral city in southwestern England with high levels of poverty and discontent. In the referendum, 58.5 percent of voters there opted for Brexit, compared with 51.9 percent nationally.

Among them was O'Donnell, a former butcher and care worker in his early 40s who now relies on state benefits because of a debilitating illness. He told his story for the Brexit play.

His frustrations ranged from cuts in public services, which he said were making life harder for people like him, to his view that it was too easy for immigrants to move to Britain and claim benefits. O'Donnell also vented his anger with politicians he thinks were out of touch.

"You do feel like you were ignored for a long time. It was never 'what do the people want?' first," he told Reuters at a community center in the social housing estate of Matson on the outskirts of Gloucester.

"We all moan about it to each other but no one wants to accept that and take it any further, so it kind of falls on deaf ears," said O'Donnell, who runs activities for children and young people at the center.

In recent years he and his wife have been hard-hit by austerity measures as the government tries to reduce a big budget deficit, including by curbing welfare spending. O'Donnell lost one of his benefits at one point, and had it restored only after a bureaucratic appeal process.

"WE LOVE THESE PEOPLE"

The premise of "My Country" is that the allegorical figure of Britannia calls a meeting to listen to her people, and a passionate debate ensues.

Traditionally depicted in flowing robes with a shield, trident and plumed helmet, Britannia appears in modern dress in the play, although the helmet and trident feature as props.

Some of her lines are quotes from speeches by the likes of David Cameron, the pro-EU prime minister brought down by the referendum result, and Boris Johnson, who campaigned to leave and is now foreign secretary.

Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and three English regions - the northeast, East Midlands and southwest, which includes Gloucester - are each represented by one actor who gives voice to several real life interviewees.

"We have tried to make this as unbiased and as equal and open as it can be," said Adam Ewan, who plays the southwest, speaking in a back room at the National Theatre, a hulking 1970s concrete building on the south bank of the Thames.

The EU referendum exposed complex fault lines in British society, with young people and urban graduates largely voting to remain in the bloc while non-graduates, older people and rural and suburban communities opted for Brexit. England and Wales voted to leave, while Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay.

"My Country" aims to break through these divides by bringing voices from different regions, ages and social classes to a wide range of people on the national tour, not just regular theatre-goers who tend to be affluent and well-educated.

To achieve that, it will rely on people like Sarah Blowers, the project's gatherer in the Gloucester area, who interviewed O'Donnell and others. In her day job, Blowers runs Strike A Light, a festival that brings performing arts to the city, including to venues like the community center in Matson.

"I'm really proud that in Gloucester our audiences are young, diverse, and we work in areas of abject poverty to sell-out audiences. I really want to see that happen with the show when it comes back," she said of the Brexit play.

Blowers supported remaining in the EU and does not think Brexit will fix Britain's problems, but said it had been eye-opening to interview people on the other side of the argument.

"That feeling of outrage and powerlessness that I had (after the referendum), that's a feeling that the other half of the country have frequently. So it feels like it turned things upside down," she said.

Most people in Britain's arts world were in favor of remaining in the EU, and there are fears that Brexit may harm the creative industries. Concerns include loss of EU funding for cultural projects and travel restrictions that would make it harder to tour or to bring in foreign talent.

But Ewan said the director, poet and actors who had stitched the play together, had left their political opinions aside.

"We've come at it very open-minded as actors, and because of that we have loved these people that we're talking for and we've really appreciated their views so much more."

(editing by David Stamp)