A reading of Andrew Rutherford’s latest play, Prepare to Leave, will be presented at Bridport Arts Centre on April 21st. He talked to Fergus Byrne about the play’s inspiration and the questions it poses.
Anyone who saw Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Winston Churchill in the film, Darkest Hour, might agree that his performance was worthy of an Oscar, as indeed was the work of his make-up artist, Kazuhiro Tsuji. In the film, we are told that Churchill’s staunch belief that Britain could never survive a truce with Germany, drove him to travel on the London underground in order to hear the public’s view. It was a scene that those in favour of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union might have applauded. The unwavering belief that the UK was capable of fighting and winning a war against what appeared to be an unbeatable adversary, was portrayed in the film as the turning point for Churchill. British pride in the result, and the country’s belief that it was an independent power to be reckoned with, was thus built on a solid foundation.
Then, in January 1973, a Union Jack was raised at the EEC’s Brussels headquarters to mark the UK’s membership of the European Economic Community. It was to be the beginning of a new and hopeful, though at times complicated and often fractious relationship with Europe—a relationship that will officially end on March 29th next year. The vote in 2016, for what was dubbed Brexit, was seen by many as an opportunity to return the UK to a position of independent power—whilst for many others, it is believed to be a step backwards from a union that has brought peace and stability to Europe for decades.
It has undoubtedly been the most divisive issue that European countries have faced since the Second World War, but for UK citizens, torn apart by the whole process, the future of their children and grandchildren’s lives has been decided, and amongst the wave of questions, the one that never recedes is what motivated the country to vote to leave.
According to NatCen, Britain’s largest independent social research agency, ‘Identity Politics’ played a substantial role in the Leave vote. ‘The Leave victory was not about objective demographics alone’ said the report. It suggested that matters of identity were equally, if not more strongly, associated with the vote to leave, particularly feelings of national identity and a sense of change over time. In a recent speech, Sir Vince Cable also claimed that ‘nostalgia for a world where passports were blue, faces were white and the map was coloured imperial pink’ had a significant effect on the exit vote.
This is a theme that is explored in a new play, Prepare to Leave, written by Bridport’s Andrew Rutherford. It is being read at Bridport Arts Centre in April.
The play revolves around the effects of a no-deal decision by the UK Government to crash out of the European Union. It explores the dramatic impact of rapidly developing events before and after Brexit Day on the personal and professional lives of UK and EU nationals, in this case, members of a University history department and their partners. A fund-raiser for Bridport Arts Centre, the reading, which is to be followed by a panel discussion, promises to raise questions and perhaps temperatures as some of the darker sides of human nature are probed and laid bare for the audience.
Andrew wrote the play last summer and admits that at the time, hopeful that Britain might elect for a ‘soft Brexit’ he wasn’t sure whether it would be relevant. However, he now questions whether the UK and Europe can conclude a deal that allows for the free movement of people. ‘It’s looking more and more likely there’ll be no deal’ he said. ‘I’m convinced there’s a small group, fifty or sixty Tory MPs that actually want to crash out. They’re not interested in any sort of deal. It’s not about the economy for them. It’s a sort of romantic, mystical view of control. They want to go back to King Arthur and all of that.’
However, the questions raised by Brexit have led to much soul-searching, at least amongst those that might indulge in such activity. ‘Although it’s about Brexit’ said Andrew, ‘it’s also about a clash of values and ideas about what a University should be. What a country should be.’
The story highlights a divide within a small University history department between the Brexiteer group—who see academic opportunities when all their European colleagues are forced to leave and therefore better jobs for English academics as a result—and those that have fewer material ambitions.
Andrew explained that, in a sense, the play homes in on just one aspect of Brexit. ‘It’s focused on employment status and immigration issues. It touches on the broader issue of these immigration targets that Theresa May basically invented when she was home secretary—this extraordinary target of trying to bring immigration and emigration level when they are hundreds of thousands apart at the moment.’
A main character, Johannes Fleet, played by local furniture designer, Petter Southall, is a Dutch professor who finds himself top of the list of people to be repatriated after Brexit. ‘There are slight shades of what happened in Germany in the 1930s’ said Andrew, ‘where they started to weed out people that were not of the Aryan race.’ The story revolves around the clash between what Fleet stands for and what some of the University bureaucrats believe in. However, there are darker forces at play. ‘We don’t meet him, but the Vice-Chancellor is a sort of intelligent version of Nigel Farage’ explained Andrew. ‘He sees Universities as something that should become instruments of the state. Some of that is taken from authoritarian situations that go back to the 1930s and so on. So, members of staff who see their future saddled to this particular way of thinking—this nationalistic way of thinking about University education—they are more than happy to start rounding up the EU people.’
To further enforce the feeling of state intervention, one of the characters in the play, Paul Mashiter, is seconded by the Home Office from the immigration unit to work inside the university as their resettlement advisor. Supported by Giles Latimer, an English academic played by Bournemouth University lecturer, Chris Huxley, their agenda is not in any doubt.
After spending ten years in the Home Office, Andrew Rutherford’s career in both Britain and America became mostly concerned with problems of criminal justice. His research focused on alternatives to penal institutions, constraints on criminal policy and what he refers to as an ‘over-riding capacity to disregard’. This became central to his work and to working with groups like the Howard League for Penal Reform. Prepare to Leave is his fourth play, all on themes inspired by his career. Counting the Birches is set in a Siberian prison. Blind Spot deals with how the authorities dealt with the death of Dr David Kelly and The Country Team is set within the United States Mission to a South American country ruled by a military dictatorship in the 1970s. His academic background means he is familiar with the setup of a small department in a University, so some of the characters in Prepare to Leave are loosely based on people that he knew.
Andrew hopes that the play will leave the audience asking questions. ‘Given the real uncertainties now as to what might happen in a year or two’ he explained, ‘people, however, they voted, will feel “this really could affect me, I need to know more about this.”’ For him, it’s a matter of encouraging discussion. ‘I hope it also helps to place in context what’s happening vis-a-vis EU citizens for the wider issues of immigration policy.’ He would like to see people think about immigration ‘in a sort of humanistic way rather than being persuaded by the tabloids that it’s a bad thing to have foreigners taking our jobs and all that.’
Prepare to Leave will certainly add to the debate and will no doubt ensure more people engage with what will happen a little less than a year from now. But judging by the debate on the BBCs The Big Questions recently, we are no closer to knowing what Brexit will mean—neither are we any closer to a consensus amongst those that will live with it.
Prepare to Leave is presented at Bridport Arts Centre on Saturday, April 21st at 7.30pm. Tickets can be booked online at www.bridport-arts.com/event/prepare-to-leave or telephone the Box Office on 01308 424204.