Death of England over at the National Theatre

DEATH OF ENGLAND by Clint Dyer & Roy Williams ; Rafe Spall as Michael ; Directed by Clint Dyer ; Set & Costume Design by ULTZ & Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey ; Lighting Design by Jackie Shemesh ; Movement Director: Lucy Cullingford ; Co-Sound Designers: Benjamin Grant & Pete Malkin ; Dialect Coach: Hazel Holder ; Staff Director: Sian Ejiwunmi-Le Berre ; National Theatre ; London, UK ; 31st January 2020 ; Credit & copyright: Helen Murray

Death of England will make any Remainer empathise with even the most passionate Leaver – something we never thought possible in the current political climate.

Better yet, the tirelessly electric Rafe Spall will do all this as his character (Michael) goes on a cocaine-fuelled retelling of his father’s life and death.

In explosions of humour and tragedy, he brings a human face to issues of race and class in modern day Britain. All the while eating Jamaican patties, downing pints and talking to a plush toy dog.

The England he shows us is what so many Londoners are blind to nowadays. Death of England gifts viewers with a better understanding of issues faced by those who live outside the mega city’s border.

The entire 100-minute production is a constant and erratic stream of conscious about a man who quickly comes undone by his father’s death. He is grieving right before you.

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The man is an athlete – constantly running about the stage chugging beers

He’s also coming to better understand the man who raised him – discovering his father’s inner turmoil which he struggled with for so long. Seeing how a man who wants to “take our country back from the blacks” can hate himself for holding such beliefs.

Spall does all this alone on stage, effortlessly transitioning into countless other characters – his dad, mum, sister, best mate and even the Indian restaurant owner down the road. He bounces from inner monologue to conversations between different people in his inner circle at a rapid-fire pace.

At the beginning, it feels almost too much so. We speak English as a first language but keeping up with his drug-fuelled thoughts was tough at first. Fortunately, it doesn’t take long for his self-reflective, vulnerable moments to slow things down. Interjecting with small but pointed breaths of humour.

There is a little audience participation too, so viewers best be prepared. Especially as the theatre is so intimate. The National Theatre’s Dorfman Theatre is set up so there are no more than two rows of viewers around the stage. Spall draws this intimacy in even further as he steps out to hand biscuits to others and gets them to duck down and hide. You can’t help but get caught up within it all.

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Pin-point lighting and sound heightens the transitions Spall makes from cheeky lad messing about with mates, to a high and somewhat unhinged griever at his father’s funeral and then to a deeply self-reflective man who becomes increasingly aware of his many faults.

It is seamless, and inevitably exhausting as Spall runs around the stage as if he were in a marathon, dripping beads of sweat just rapidly as he his tongue moves around the masses of dialogue.

It’s a proper workout. But he doesn’t falter at any point – not missing a beat, somehow mastering circular breathing as he talks, runs and talks and cries and talks and jokes and talks and snorts cocaine. You can’t take your eyes off him.

He is a spectacular car crash – pain and fear colliding within him.

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The intimate experience is full of slow and tender moments too. All photos by Helen Murray

And Death of England comes at a pertinent point of the UK’s own modern history. Brexit is done. Something which feels like the death of England to many.

But this one-man play takes an honest and precisely bashful look at the people who got us here. All the while examining their own British heritage and inner conflicts.

A lot is tackled by writers Clint Dyer and Roy Williams, but you can’t fault them on any fronts. At a time when partisan politics dominates, Death of England builds some bridges between warring sides.

Death of England runs at the National Theatre until 7 March.
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