Death of England review – Rafe Spall dazzles in punkish state-of-the-nation address

National Theatre, London
Spall is like a man possessed in Roy Williams’ and Clint Dyer’s hair-raising dramatic monologue about the grief and grievances of a working-class white male

In the seven days since Britain left the European Union, two major state-of-the-new-nation plays have been staged. Both use the metaphor of family grief to mourn Britain’s contemporary condition. But while Mike Bartlett’s Albion grapples quietly with middle-class lives, this production is punkish in its spirit and radical in its endeavour to dramatise white working-class experience. Perhaps all the more so because two black British playwrights – Roy Williams and Clint Dyer – have written it.

Presented as a dramatic monologue, directed by Dyer, it has a towering performance by Rafe Spall as Michael, a ducker and diver in T-shirt and trainers who is emotionally undone by his father’s sudden death, while also reappraising his legacy. Spall plays a number of characters, from his father – a flower-stall owner who wants to “take our country back from the blacks” – to his best friend’s Jamaican-born mother and the Asian man who reveals his father’s secrets.

He has an antic, athletic energy as he makes razor-speed switches between characters, speaking for them and also about them in a parallel inner monologue. His performance is almost too quick-fire at first, filled with demon speed and delivered in one unbroken breath, it seems. But it slows, quietens, and gains a formidable intensity and a heart-stopping vulnerability, too. Part cheeky chappie, part thug, Michael snorts coke, shadow-boxes and drips sweat across the stage. But he also crumples to his knees at the sound of his father’s recorded voice, and looks childlike with grief.

Death of England.
Part cheeky chappie, part thug. Photograph: Helen Murray

There is a standup-style exchange between Spall and the audience in the opening scenes: he banters, offers around biscuits and jumps off the stage. It feels a little strained but is part of a greater disruption intended to draw our eye towards the play’s flamboyant theatricality. Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey and ULTZ’s set is shaped as a St George’s Cross and the auditorium takes on the feel of a football terrace. All the props sit kitschly in raised cabinets surrounding the stage, from a stuffed bulldog representing Michael’s pugnacious sister to a plate of Sunday roast that symbolises family dinners.

Jackie Shemesh’s lighting feels disruptive, too; the spotlight is glaring and wobbly, sometimes blinding the audience, other times vanishing to pitch black or chasing Spall along the stage. It creates an exciting sense of delirium and gives visual expression to Michael’s chaotic mind-state.

Death of England derives from a microplay commissioned by the Royal Court theatre and the Guardian in 2014. The funeral in that short film forms a sensational set piece here, when the stage opens to an over-lit crematorium with a coffin covered by a Union Jack. Spall displays a dazzling ability to change registers between the comic and dramatic as his character makes a drunken address to the congregation.

Rafe Spall in Death of England: a microplay by the Guardian and the Royal Court (2014)

Football becomes the play’s other metaphor for Britain’s lost greatness. Michael’s father dies just as England loses its dream of reaching the World Cup final again. The imagined terraces in it are strewn with racial hatred and bananas are flung on to the stage. In the light of Les Ferdinand’s recent words on his experiences in the game (“football has always been an arena where people could get away with [racism] en masse”), this aspect of the play feels loaded with real-world resonance. Michael’s father has an expedient hate, speaking about a “time and place” to air his bigotry – not on his stall, for fear of losing trade. His racism becomes an ideological inheritance that Michael tries to reject, though he does not know what to put in its place: “What do I believe in? I dunno.”

Overtly political references range from Trump and Steve Bannon to Tommy Robinson and the Windrush scandal but these embody the play’s few weak moments, when Michael speaks as if on a soapbox. They are few and far between, though, and its broader politics – of class, race, nationhood and family – make for the most exhilarating and hair-raising drama. This is truly a play for today.

• At the National Theatre, London, until 8 March.


Arifa Akbar

The GuardianTramp

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