Paul T Davies reviews Death Of England, a new play by Roy Williams and Clint Dyer starring Rafe Spall at the National Theatre.
Death of England.
6 February 2020
The St. George’s Cross, like all flags, is an evocative image, sewn together with complicated feelings of patriotism, history, nationalism and, sometimes, shame. The superb set by Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey and ULTZ is the shape of the St. George’s cross, providing an energetic, free lowing runway for Michael to tell his story, utilizing every corner of the Dorfman stage, with significant props, brimming with totemic importance, being revealed at key moments. The death of his father has devastated Michael, but how to reconcile yourself to the fact that you Dad was a racist, and that neither parent nurtured you into adulthood, that they make clear they think you’re a failure?
This stunning new play by Roy Williams and Clint Dyer, (who also directs with street smart passion), explores the complicated relationship between fathers and sons, men and country and men and masculinity. Michael is your true Cockney white boy “geezer”, brought up with fundamental values that ultimately cripple him- particularly that real men don’t cry. We first meet him in a series of swift tabloids, snorting coke, having a laugh, drinking, weeping privately ahead of his father’s funeral. But gradually we come to know the man beneath, as he comes to know an aspect of his father that was kept hidden from the family. He shares out biscuits and bananas, banters with the audience, and tackles his Dad’s racism.
This is a powerhouse performance from Rafe Spall, mesmerising and gripping throughout, he is a broken man who desperately tries to glue the pieces together, always seeking his father’s approval, never achieving it, but insisting on an ideal image of Dad, trying to justify his racism by pointing out his Dad always insisted there was a time and a place for it. Except the EU Referendum gives his racism a stronger voice, and Spall is excellent at playing all the character’s in Michael’s life. His friendship with Del Roy, a black kid he has known since school, provides the spur for him to explore his father’s hypocrisy, and the script manages to use the relationship between father and son to portray our relationship with our country.
As Michael takes us through a turbulent journey to his father’s death, while watching England losing in the World Cup semi-final, an entire country is presented, and if that wasn’t entertaining enough, then comes Michael’s drunken speech at the funeral, a theatrical highlight of the year! Then he is approached by a surprising friend of his father’s, and he discovers that his father also had a time and a place to be his ‘real’ self. The writers threaten to head us towards a too compact, feel-good conclusion, then cleverly rip that apart to place racism back at the play’s core.
With a superb soundscape by Pete Malkin and Benjamin Grant, and a lighting design that swaggers along with Michael, this is urgent storytelling for a 100 gripping minutes, visceral, raw, emotional, funny, complex, broken and beautiful, much like England itself.