Andy Polaris witnesses a riveting solo performance from Rafe Spall
in Death of England at the National Theatre . . .
Opening on a stark catwalk type of stage, Spall introduces us to Michael darting between bursts of light to reveal aspects of his life. He addresses the audience in a semi-intoxicated state (coke and alcohol) with his strident views about the state of the country in this divisive Brexit climate. He sets each scene with some token props, such as four metal vases as he regales us with stories about his cockney father, a florist who knew how to hustle and charm his customers. He talks with some fondness about his Jamaican school-friend Delroy whose formidable mother cajoled him for his bad influence on her son. He talks of his fractious relationship with his sister Carly and his own all-suffering mother who comprised one of the typical white working-class families that once dominated East London but are now more likely to be found scattered around Essex.
Michael’s father’s seemingly heroic death – collapsing in a pub after watching England get defeated in the World Cup – is symbolic of a swathe of the country whipped up by tabloid fervour while attempting to relive past glories. The defeat is swiftly blamed on non-white players, and we witness a topical scene (reflecting current football headlines) where bananas are thrown on stage, harking back to the seemingly bad old days of racism and hooligans. Ugly chanting is ignored by the complicit fans who do little about the racists in their midst and in this case in their own families. The lack of opportunity and the failed policies of successive governments that led up to Brexit and the snarling anger at the system are all tackled in this explosive physical performance. Michael is a combustible ball of white phosphorescent rage and self-pity, sweating, fidgeting and barking as he aggressively paces up and down the stage, calling out sometimes with sarcastic humour all that is wrong in his directionless world. Phil Mitchell as directed by Tarantino.
How you view his plight may well be deduced from your skin colour, and class for that matter. As a person of colour, your empathy may be diminished considerably, mainly due to the frequency of being a target of this rage. The flying spittle emerging from his relentless diatribe is the stuff of BBC Question Time or viral videos shot on public transport, some I have witnessed personally from far too close quarters. The vocal racism emboldened by Brexit has seen flashpoints which can be exploited by both sides (Tommy Robinson and Owen Jones are both mentioned) as multicultural neighbourhoods now bristle with resentment. It is unusual that the writer and director of this searing social commentary on white English identity are both black (Roy Williams and Clint Dyer) and you wonder how this relates to their experiences growing up possibly with “friends” who tolerated them (“You’re all right, you’re not like all the rest”) yet still held deeply bigoted views. This monologue has managed to pierce the fragile psyche of Englishness on the precipice of historic change.
Michael’s dysfunctional family dynamic changes after dad’s death and funeral and we see him discover a hidden and unexpected side of his father which opens up the play towards its conclusion. For many of the mostly middle-class white audience, this production will offer a look into another world far removed from their own. For others, sadly, these angry male voices are rarely heard in contemporary theatre, though they often belong to our neighbours.
Recently, I have seen some impressive plays by black writers/directors, including the hilarious The Gift by Janice Okoh and directed by Dawn Walton, and Jackie Sibblies Drury‘s extraordinary Pulitzer prize-winning drama Fairview. Unfortunately such diversity is not usually reflected in the audiences and that poses a perennial problem in London’s West End.
WRITER AND DIRECTOR TALK ABOUT THEIR PLAY