Death of England began in 2014 as a 10-minute film co-commissioned by London’s Royal Court and the Guardian. I was one of six writers approached to write a ‘micro-play’ inspired by one of the sections of the paper – for example, Education, Fashion or Sport – for a season titled Off the Page.
I had my eye on Sport from the word go. I already found the world of football a useful way to reflect on issues of class, race and identity. The beautiful game in all its ugliness had already inspired me to write two full-length plays, Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads and Joe Guy.
For the microplay, I was paired with Clint Dyer who had directed my play Kingston 14 earlier that year. We decided to set our story around a sole protagonist, Michael, who would drunkenly address the congregation at the funeral service of his football-obsessed dad.
Earlier that summer, at the World Cup in Brazil, the England team had crashed out after just two matches. English football was at a low, and it was at this time that people started to hear the word Brexit.
Over several drafts, Michael – played brilliantly from the beginning by Rafe Spall – would use the England performance as an excuse to let rip on all that was wrong with the country and express his frustration and anger as a white working-class man.
Clint and I decided to have a go at pushing it into a full-length piece. Emily McLaughlin, the inspiring head of new work at London’s National Theatre who had commissioned the original film, invited us to spend two weeks developing the script.
Our instinct was to open it out to show more of Michael’s world, and him engaging with his family. On the strength of this, the National commissioned us to co-write the full-length piece.
I had never written a one-person play before or co-written with anyone – it was a revelation
As we began to work, I saw that we were losing what we had under too much research and too many characters. Michael and his anger were disappearing.
I suggested to Clint we take it back to Death of England’s original premise: one man enduring one of the worst days of his life, addressing the audience.
To test that it would work I wrote a draft in which Michael was once again the lone voice. Clint took over on the next draft and then, via email, we continued to pass the script back and forth for months. I had never written a one-person play before or co-written with anyone. The process between us proved seamless – it was a revelation.
The added joy was that even though we now had only one performer, we did not lose any of the ideas those great actors had led us to in workshop at the NT Studio.
What I have taken away is that changing lines and the structure of your piece is not as important as discovering – and holding on to – the core of what you believe your play is about.
Roy Williams is a playwright. His new play Death of England, written with Clint Dyer, runs at the National Theatre in London until March 7. Details: nationaltheatre.org.uk