From the moment that Rafe Spall explodes out of the darkness onto the St George’s Cross shaped stage, swearing, shadow boxing, snorting coke and crying, you know that you are in for quite a ride. Rafe is playing Michael, a 39-year-old ‘bloke’ blindsided by grief after the sudden death of his father, trying to make sense of his life, writes Katie Kelly.
As the title suggests, Death of England explores the nature of Englishness in post-Brexit Britain, a place of disturbingly increased confidence in the racism that shaped Michael’s childhood. Bananas thud relentlessly onto the stage during a remembered football match. Michael alternates between high energy swagger and incontinent emotion in a portrait of toxic masculinity, a phenomenon described very aptly by Russell Brand in the programme as a “pollutant that has intoxicated us and from which we can be healed”
When Michael’s father fades quietly yet shockingly away on his shoulder during a World Cup match, which once again shatters the dreams of English fans, the last chance for the approval Michael has lived for dies with him. Or does it? After the funeral, where the stripped back staging gives way to a fully rendered crematorium and Michael delivers an explosive, invective filled, eulogy, he meets a mysterious stranger who, in a rather improbable plot twist, provides him with a new understanding of his late Dad; more complicated, still tinged with darkness, but ultimately liberating and life affirming.
Rafe Spall’s performance is a thing to behold. An hour and forty minutes of non-stop, high energy delivery. At times he could have slowed down, and given more space to the rich and nuanced writing of Clint Dyer and Roy Williams. These two highly talented black playwrights give voice to the underbelly of English racist subculture with wit and power. The audience was one of the youngest, most diverse I have ever seen. England may be dying but, in their hands, theatre is very much alive.
National Theatre, Dorfman Theatre, South Bank, SE1 until 7th March. Times: 8pm; Wed & Sat matinees 3pm. Admission: £15 – £61. Phone: 020 7452 3000
Photos: Helen Murray