Visceral Theatre in Death of England at the National Theatre.
It’s always a stimulating experience going to The Dorfman Theatre. It’s the National’s version of the Young Vic or The Royal Court – a place to find experimental writing and productions; director Clint Dyer and his co-writer Roy Williams are both working-class and black and their new play Death of England is no exception delivering a visceral and challenging though still hugely entertaining theatrical experience. The piece first saw the light of day as a short film but has now been extended for the stage into a 100-minute monologue starring Rafe Spall (Hedda Gabler, Black Mirror).
Addressing themes of race, class and male identity, Spall gives a no-holds-barred performance that traverses blind anger, self-loathing, a childlike neediness and a high-energy capacity for comic invention that held the press night audience spellbound. Spall, wearing a white t-shirt and trainers and black trousers, plays Michael Fletcher, a man dealing with the emotional fallout from his father’s death. Michael’s character is quickly established in an energetic blur of micro-scenes that open the play; we see him as a loser, self-medicating with alcohol and cocaine, unable to “get it up” with a woman, abandoned by his wife and desperate for the love and approval of his flower-stall-owning father.
In the first of a series of more extended sections, Spall delivers an extraordinary hyper-patter believing he is selling a bunch of flowers to a punter; the unwitting recipient of this high-octane spiel has actually come to pay his respects, honouring the rigid codes by which Michael’s Leyton Orient supporting and racist dad lived. The dad was feted as being “proper” by his peers with his tribal racism having its “time and place”. Spall inhabits the various characters with an almost frightening virtuosity. We learn about his best friend Delroy through a story of how they both stole their school’s crest only to be confronted by Delroy’s mother who Michael calls a “black bitch”. She wastes no time in speaking some home truths to Michael’s dad, for it is the black Delroy who will inevitably end up being blamed. We hear the mother’s voice through Spall’s and it drew howls of approval from the audience as much for its authenticity (props to dialect coach Hazel Holder) as for her assertiveness in confronting white male power.
We learn how the father died standing next to his son watching England’s capitulation to Croatia in the World Cup semi-finals. This perception of national failure, which is actually a nationalist failure, and the revenge of the nationalists on liberals through Brexit, stands as the central metaphor for a dying England in the play.
Michael confronts his father’s contradictions and hypocrisy in a drunken rant at the funeral service finally expressing his grief in the only way he is able, through violence and starting a punch up. After the funeral, Michael is approached by the owner of the local Indian restaurant. It transpires that his father has secretly rented a room above the restaurant where the two of them had a secret friendship having discussions about issues of race and class, and, in a slightly unlikely if symbolic twist reading books by authors including Owen Jones, Akala and Salman Rushdie; but there was also a laptop on which there was evidence Mr Fletcher had made a payment to Tommy Robinson and watched Steve Bannon videos, unable to break from his racist roots.
The production design and direction are both excellent. The Dorfman’s ground floor level is filled with a giant cross of St George on which the action takes place with a stunning reveal for the funeral scene. The dramatic space is ringed by boxes at head level displaying Jamaican patties, vinyl albums and other ephemera that help flesh out the drama which Michael pulls out as if accessing a memory from his brain. There is some very inventive use of sound design and the overall experience has enough impact to keep even the Tik Tok generation engaged.
Death of England is a play that can genuinely speak to a diverse audience, something the National Theatre needs to be and is doing. The character of Michael does get some kind of resolution at the end of the play as we see some of the characters trying to confront their embedded class and racial identities. Rafe Spall’s performance is a tour de force and possibly a career-defining role but for me, one question remains. Is the England presented in the play actually dying or is the nationalist lion resurgent, challenging liberal certainties and received wisdom?
Death of England – The Dorfman Theatre at the NT Dorfman Theatre from 8th February 2020 to 7 March 2020
London SE1 9PX
Also showing at the National, we highly recommend The Welkin