Anyone interested in Britain’s post-Brexit mood would have done well to visit Bishop Auckland this summer. A small, sleepy market town of about 16,000 inhabitants between Newcastle and Durham, Bishop Auckland seldom makes it into the national news. Between July and September this year, however, it twice weekly attracted an audience of 8,000 with a spectacular outdoor show called Kynren: An epic tale of England. We, too, followed the call of Kynren, curious how its makers had chosen to re-enact the history of England. What we did not expect was a full-on Brexit spectacle.
As soon as we arrived we were impressed by the dimensions of Kynren, which bills itself as the “UK’s most spectacular open-air live action night show since the opening of the London 2012 Olympics”. What may sound a little grand is, in fact, no exaggeration. Kynren features a cast of around a thousand people, mainly made up by volunteers from the region. A huge auditorium faces an even huger outdoor stage, complete with an artificial lake, out of which a hunting lodge and a fully equipped Viking ship rise during the show. There are fireworks, fountains, projections onto screens of water and what surely must be the fastest sheep in the world. But there is also “the story of us”.
At the beginning of the show we meet Arthur, a young boy from Bishop Auckland, who wants to become a professional football player. When Arthur accidentally kicks his ball through a window of a hunting lodge in the grounds of Auckland Castle, he “encounters the Bishop, who urges him to think beyond football alone, and offers to take him on a journey of 2,000 years of British history, to open his eyes to the greatness of his land.”1
The journey begins with King Arthur and the withdrawal of the Romans, quickly jumping forward in time to the Battle of Stamford Bridge (1066), when King Harold fights off the Normans, immediately followed by the Battle of Hastings (1066), when Harold is beaten by William the Conqueror. We meet Henry VIII jousting with Francis I in France and Shakespeare flirting with Queen Elizabeth. We visit the Civil War, mourn after the Felling mining disasters of 1811 and celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. We witness the First World War through the unofficial Christmas truce of 1914 and we listen to Winston Churchill’s famous “Blood, toil, tears, and sweat” speech. The play ends with Arthur, now old and frail, speaking directly to the audience bestowing upon it “my love of England, my dear England”. All ages and epochs assemble on the stage to cheer for England. Pomp and circumstance sounds through the loudspeakers. The spectators rise collectively from their seats waving plastic flags.
As spectacle, Kynren was impressive and captivating. But as history, it was as problematic as it was one-sided. While it could not tell the history of England without featuring Romans, Normans, Anglo-Saxons, French and Germans, they all figured merely as fought-back invaders, who had left no mark on the English nation. Scotland, only a two hours’ drive away, was cast much in the same role — no mention of the Union or Britain. No mention, too, that England had once ruled over a quarter of the world’s population and landmass. Only the scene about the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria referred to the Empire — by showing Indian dancers (played by white English women in yellow face) whirling their skirts in celebration of the Queen. There was not a single non-white face in the audience and there would be none on the stage. But then again, this was the story of “us”, people, who had come here so long ago, they had forgotten they were sons and daughters of immigrants too, not of the “others”, the enslaved and exploited.
At any other time, Kynren could have been shrugged off as harmless entertainment, as an innocent eccentricity — but not this year. It was impossible to watch Kynren without thinking of Brexit, especially as the North of England (with the exception of Newcastle) overwhelmingly voted to leave the European Union. County Durham, to which Bishop Auckland belongs, was no exception: 153,877 people voted Leave compared to 113,521 votes cast in support of Remain.2
Some commentators saw Brexit as connected to nostalgia.3 Kynren could be seen as evidence for that but it was mainly bad history, history made to serve an agenda. “In Britain we use our history in order to comfort us to make us feel stronger, to remind ourselves that we were always, always deep down, good people,” Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum said recently. ((Kate Connoly, Britain’s view of its history ‘dangerous’, says former museum director, Guardian (7 October 2016)) Kynren is a good example for this. It distorts the past, literally whitewashing it. Kynren is an Our Island Story for the twenty-first century, a history of England as those who voted to Brexit would like to see it, and a comforting story about the past to make audiences feel better about the present. But that does not make it any more true. Kynren 2016 is over, tickets for Kynren 2017 have just gone on sale. I wonder if it will feature a new scene: how brave English voters fought back yet another foreign power — the EU.
Stephen Smith, Cue the levitating longboat: the £35m all-singing, all-dancing history of Britain, The Guardian (21 June 2016).
Charlotte Runcie, Kynren, review: a historical epic painted in primary colours, The Telegraph (30 June 2016).
Charlotte Metcalf, Kynren: the live show that tells 2,000 years of British history with a rough-and-ready charm, The Independent (25 July 2016).
- Sara Abbasi, “Nostalgic elderly Brexiters have stolen my future,” Guardian (25 June 2016), Volker Wagener, “Opinion: In Brexit vote, UK nostalgia beat EU dreams,” Deutsche Welle (27 July 2016); Kehinde Andrews, “Colonial nostalgia is back in fashion, blinding us to the horrors of empire,” Guardian (24 August 2016); Ishaan Tharoor, “The other side of the global right-wing surge: Nostalgia for empire,” Washington Post (2 December 2016