Death of England started life as a 10-minute micro-play commissioned by the Royal Court and the Guardian in 2014. Six years, three elections, and one referendum later, it arrives on the National Theatre’s Dorfman stage a fully fledged 100-minute monologue – a punchy, one-man play featuring a fiery Rafe Spall.
Written by Roy Williams and Clint Dyer, and directed by the latter, it follows Michael – a working-class, late-30s Essex man – and the fallout from the death of Michael’s father, a racist, Brexit-loving flower seller, who collapsed during England’s World Cup semi-final defeat to Croatia two years ago.
Dyer’s production runs in the Dorfman until mid-March and also makes a small slice of history: Dyer becomes the first black person to have written, directed and performed at the National Theatre. Spall, meanwhile, returns to the stage for the first time since appearing in Ivo van Hove’s Hedda Gabler in 2016.
But do Williams and Dyer deftly dissect post-Brexit Britain. Does Spall serve-up up a monologue to remember? Do the critics cheer or cry over Death of Britain? Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Williams has had a productive, prolific, 20-year career as a playwright, receiving an OBE in 2008 and an Olivier-nomination in 2011, but he is still best-known for his 2002 football-themed drama Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads. With Dyer, he returns to a similar stomping ground in Death of England. And most reviewers reckon it is a powerful piece of writing.
It is “a roar of a monologue” driven by “fear and rage, devotion and loathing” according to Tim Bano (The Stage ★★★★), while for Nick Curtis (Evening Standard ★★★★) it “zings with demotic wit”, and for Arifa Akbar (Guardian ★★★★) it is “the most exhilarating and hair-raising drama” – and “truly a play for today”.
“It’s an uncompromising work that never for a second shies away from some burning questions – tackling contemporary themes of racism, political disillusionment and the place of an individual within both a community and a fractured nation,” writes Alex Wood (WhatsOnStage ★★★). “In the wake of a divisive referendum and a redrawing of political ley lines, more plays like Death of England need to exist on British stages.”
Not everyone agrees – for Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph ★★★) the play succumbs “to short-hand and stereotype”, and Andrzej Lukowski (TimeOut ★★★) thinks it “ultimately gives off more heat than light” – but most do agree.
“This is a terrific piece of work that pierces the ugly, Brexit-amplified confusion over who we are as a people and as a nation – in a language that always rings true,” concludes Claire Allfree (Metro ★★★★).
Rafe Spall has had his share of success on screen – Hot Fuzz, The Big Short, Jurassic World, and he recently starred in the BBC’s three-part adaptation of The War of the Worlds – but his infrequent forays into theatre have been seriously stellar – Hedda Gabler with Ruth Wilson in 2016, Betrayal in 2013 with Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, and Constellations in 2012 with Sally Hawkins.
He is, by all accounts, exceptional in Death of England, supplying what Wood labels “a solo tour-de-force”, what Curtis calls “one of the most ferociously demanding performance I’ve ever seen”, and what Aleks Sierz (The Arts Desk ★★★★) lauds as “a performance of a lifetime. “Picture a dog let off its lead – by turns panting friendly and frothing-rabid,” likens Cavendish.
“Spall – muscular, jocular, sweaty – captures every essence of Michael’s bubbling self-loathing,” continues Wood. “He comes unfiltered, blubbering, babbling and sometimes baffling the audience – hopping out into the theatre pit to offer out custard creams and pat punters on the back.”
“It’s a miracle Spall’s own voice makes it through the show – all yells, hoarse and throaty and full of post-nasal snorts – but it’s incredible to see him just go for it,” adds Bano. “Spall captures that fine line between sadness and anger so clearly, as he forces himself to turn his sobs into shouts.”
He is “overwhelmingly charismatic” according to Clive Davis (Times ★★★★), has “a ferocious and winding intensity” according to Mark Shenton (LondonTheatre ★★★★)”, and a “heart-stopping vulnerability” according to Akbar. For Allfree, meanwhile, “Spall deserves every accolade going for this spit-speckled, sweat-soaked, testosterone-powered performance.”
Clint Dyer made his directorial debut in 2004 with The Big Life at Theatre Royal Stratford East. It was a hit, transferring to the Apollo Theatre, and making Dyer the first black director to stage a musical in the West End in the process. He’s juggled writing, directing and acting ever since – and does so dexterously here, say the critics.
His production is “inspired” according to Davis, “vividly staged” according to Shenton, and serves Spall’s searing performance “brilliantly” according to Sierz. His work is widely praised, as is that of designers Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey and Ultz, and lighting designer Jackie Shemesh.
“The Dorfman has been transformed into a cross between a miniature football stadium and a fashion show catwalk,” describes Davis. “39-year-old Michael paces from one end of the space to another. Sometimes, as the lights flash above him, we see him taking another hit of white powder or booze.”
“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,” adds Akbar. “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.”
The overall outcome is “a smouldering poker” of a production according to Wood, a show that “pulses with dynamism” according to Curtis, and “a captivating hundred minutes of passion, humour and self-lacerating fury,” according to Davis.
With a bundle of four-star reviews to slap across its posters, its safe to say Death of England is a bit of a hit. Williams and Dyer’s 100-minute monologue burns with passion and politics, and Dyer’s staging of it is similarly scorching.
What makes the production particularly powerful, however, is Spall in the central role – he provides a full-throttle, no-holds-barred barnstormer of a turn and perhaps one of the performances of the year.