How drag cabaret got me talking sense on Brexit

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion / Finance - Jonny Woo

Bri­tain is a na­tion di­vided. It’s of­fi­cial. Ever since the ref­er­en­dum we have be­come po­larised into those who want to leave and those who want to re­main, and noth­ing in be­tween. Never will that be more ap­par­ent than around the din­ner ta­ble this Christ­mas. But is that re­ally true? Are we re­ally a na­tion that will be stuck, look­ing down into a plate of brussels sprouts, un­able to look fam­ily mem­bers in the eye for fear the B-word will spring forth from our mouths?

I ended my Ed­in­burgh show this year by say­ing: “We should be march­ing off to a bright new fu­ture, but we have never been more di­vided.” Then, as the au­di­ence left, I took pho­tos with them; older, younger, men, women, non-bi­nary. “In­nies” and “Ou­ties”. “Oh I voted leave, she voted re­main.”

Cut to a week or so ago and I’m chat­ting to my doc­tor about some “in­ti­mate” tests. He asks what show I had been do­ing and I say a show about Brexit. I give a few fa­mil­iar re­main ar­gu­ments and he replies: “But I guess it is about time we ad­dressed the amount of peo­ple com­ing into the coun­try.” Erm, ex­cuse me, NHS sex­ual health clinic doc­tor. You voted leave? Pre­con­cep­tions about the typ­i­cal leave voter im­me­di­ately dis­pelled – though it feels a bit odd di­vert­ing off into a dis­cus­sion about Brexit when I had a more im­me­di­ate sit­u­a­tion to deal with. But I’m guess­ing he prob­a­bly has a much bet­ter idea of how a cen­tral Lon­don health ser­vice would be stretched so why get into a heated de­bate on im­mi­gra­tion, which in truth I don’t know that much about.

I my­self am a lot “in” but not nec­es­sar­ily en­tirely, and think that our re­la­tion­ship with Europe was in need of some very se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion. I also don’t ac­tu­ally know if my doc­tor voted leave. I as­sumed he’d be re­main and then he just men­tioned im­mi­gra­tion and so I as­sumed leave. But he might just be a bit leave, sim­ply pro­cess­ing one part of a com­pli­cated sit­u­a­tion like ev­ery­one else.

My busi­ness part­ner is ad­dicted to talking about it. We never re­ally dis­cuss pol­i­tics; but it’s al­most with ex­cite­ment that we launch into dis­cus­sions over “what ifs” and “how our par­ents voted dif­fer­ently to us”. In fact, most peo­ple are will­ing to chat about it – not re­luc­tantly or with any shame, but with a cer­tain level of en­thu­si­asm and frus­tra­tion in equal mea­sure.

I worked in sales briefly and we were ad­vised never to ask a closed ques­tion. But with re­gards to Brexit, “Are you leave or re­main?” usu­ally prompts fairly lengthy jus­ti­fi­ca­tion em­phat­i­cally for one or the other, or gen­eral mus­ings about lack of in­for­ma­tion, or the shit pile we seem to find our­selves in, or gen­eral ram­blings about what other peo­ple think. I find if I just shut up and let other peo­ple do the talking, I learn about this per­son. I learn a bit more about the reasons why, and I learn that we are not as po­larised as the me­dia might make us think. The World Cup couldn’t do it. A royal wed­ding couldn’t do it. Cer­tainly not one that didn’t give us a pub­lic hol­i­day. But Brexit in its very di­vi­sive­ness has ac­tu­ally united the na­tion. We all have an opin­ion on Brexit. It af­fects us all and we have all played a part.

It’s this col­lec­tive­ness that in­flu­enced my ap­proach to cre­at­ing my All Star Brexit Cabaret. A mu­si­cal about Brexit was a funny PR-grab­bing idea for my Un-Royal Va­ri­ety in the late sum­mer of 2016, but it quickly pro­vided a source rich in ma­te­rial for my­self and Richard Thomas (the com­poser of Jerry Springer: The Opera) to write about. What was sup­posed to be a fiveminute mu­si­cal skit be­came a half-hour seg­ment with about 13 mu­si­cal num­bers. A show not about facts or fig­ures but about how we treated each other, the names we called each other, the dis­cus­sions that we were hav­ing – heated or oth­er­wise – our prej­u­dices and pre­con­cep­tions. And of course the politi­cians who have be­come car­i­ca­ture pan­tomime vil­lains.

My dad is very much a proud leave voter so I was de­ter­mined that the show shouldn’t be just another ve­hi­cle for the re­main point of view that re­cy­cles fa­mil­iar ar­gu­ments but doesn’t ad­dress the way many re­main­ers la­belled all leavers racist or stupid. I wanted space for the other side of the de­bate. It’s hard to al­low the op­po­si­tion to have a plat­form, es­pe­cially when some of the is­sues seem to grate deeply with what we hold so dear. But in or­der to write the show I’ve had to find a way to em­pathise with both sides of the ar­gu­ment.

Of course I wish the ref­er­en­dum hadn’t hap­pened, but it has and there is no turn­ing back the clock. What­ever the out­come, which will def­i­nitely not please ev­ery­one, we will as a na­tion have to find a way to move for­wards. And it won’t be the politi­cians who will be heal­ing any wounds. It’s widely ac­cepted now that an “in or out” ques­tion was hugely in­ad­e­quate for such a huge is­sue and the cur­rent deal on the ta­ble sat­is­fies no one. Per­haps that’s one thing ev­ery­one can agree on this fes­tive sea­son?

• Jonny Woo’s All Star Brexit Cabaret is at the Lon­don Coli­seum on 17 De­cem­ber

Pho­to­graph: Scott Garfitt

‘It’s this col­lec­tive­ness that in­flu­enced my ap­proach to cre­at­ing my All Star Brexit Cabaret.’Jonny Woo’s Un-Royal Va­ri­ety Theresa May Choir.

Nish Ku­mar: What can a satirist do with ourpost-truth pol­i­tics? – video

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