Death of England
Theatre: Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre
Playwrights: Roy Williams and Clint Dyer
Director: Clint Dyer
Review by Chama Kay
Britain certainly feels like a nation experiencing a political watershed. We have left the EU. The Conservatives secured a landslide victory with many Labour heartlands falling. And instances of racism and racial violence are on the rise. It is within this context that Death of England is set.
Michael Fletcher (Rafe Spall) is an East London stereotypical geezer. He loves football, and loves beer even more, and has an unmatched air of over-confidence. Michael’s father is a proud market trader (running a flower stall) and an even prouder Englishman. Seemingly in rude health, the senior Fletcher suddenly dies from a heart attack, leaving Michael to confront everything it means to be his father’s son, from his work ethic, political views and place in the world as a white English man.
As a one man show, the Death of England relies heavily on Spall’s acting chops. Thankfully, he delivers with a frantic, energetic and all round brilliant performance. His Michael is a scared, confused, emotionally stunted boy wrapped in a thin veneer of macho-posturing and pride.
Spall masterfully retains the essence of Michael while doing impressions of other people in his life. This insight into the world of the white working class male is particularly palpable when Michael performs impressions of non-white and/or non-English characters.
Playwrights Williams and Dyer, two black men, have chosen to delve into the psyche of the white working class male, a demographic that is often described as forgotten or left behind. This choice might initially seem odd, until we consider the political importance this demographic has come to hold.
The audience sees a story of a father who protects his young son from some displays of overt racism, whilst partaking in acts of racism himself. Michael is clearly written as the product of this type of upbringing in scores of homes in multicultural Britain, ruled by racist patriarchs who fear the loss of their country, and perhaps fear more the loss of their place in the world.
Death of England is staged in the round on a cross-shaped stage, designed by ULTZ and Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey. The intimate space this creates is well directed by Dyer and well used by Spall, who eases the audience into his world through cheeky interactions before the heavier themes kick in.
Bolstered by clever lighting by Jackie Shemesh, there are moments when the stage is bathed in red light, creating the effect of St George’s cross. And the political implications of this play are not subtle: Corbyn, #MeToo, Trump, Boris and Brexit all feature.
The humanisation of those who hold racist views will no doubt be difficult for some audiences, but to paraphrase Michael Fletcher himself, we may not see the bananas on the pitch every week, but the anger is still there, and is making a comeback.
For that reason alone, it’s worth seeing a play that tries to explain why.
Death of England is at the Dorfman Theatre at the National until 7 March 2020.
Photo credit: Helen Murray