Review - Death of England starring Rafe Spall at the National Theatre
Back in 2005, I interviewed Clint Dyer when his production of a musical called The Big Life was about to transfer from Stratford East to the Apollo Theatre, and he became the first black British director to direct a musical in the West End. As he told me then: "The wonderful thing about being black in this country is that as a black person you have an amazing opportunity to be the first at a lot of things."
Now, as he directs and co-authors (with Roy Williams) a new play Death of England at the National's Dorfman Theatre a whole decade and a half later, he has achieved that distinction again, becoming the first black British artist to have performed, written and directed a full-scale production at that institution.
There's been a lot of progress towards increased diversity and representation in British theatre in the intervening years, with major theatres like the Young Vic, Bush and Kiln in London and the Royal Exchange in Manchester now being led by people of colour.
But what's particularly striking about the raw and powerful dramatic monologue that Dyer and Williams have created, and which Rafe Spall performs with a ferocious and winding intensity in an unbroken 1 hour 40 minutes, is that it dares to explore tangled questions of racism, heritage and Britishness through the prism of a white man's complex relationship with his father, a man who runs an East End flower stall and early on in the play is revealed to be a Leave-supporting football fan who extols "England for the English". His son, however, voted Remain, but won't admit it to his dad.
After the father dies while watching a football match, his son makes some dramatic discoveries about a secret, more nuanced life his father led away from the predictable assumptions we've already been led to believe about him.
This is a play that relishes in detonating expectations; and Dyer's production - vividly staged on two intersecting runways that intersect with each other and give the actor full reign of the entire length and breadth of the Dorfman - brings us right up close to Spall's Michael. At many moments, he interacts directly with those closest to him.
Spall's astonishing physical performance keeps him restlessly on the move throughout the play, always maintaining a relentless flurry of words that makes it a true tour-de-force. As he travels from rage and raw grief to understanding, we are entirely gripped.
Originally conceived as a 10-minute "micro-play" co-commissioned by the Royal Court and The Guardian [below] also starring Spall, it has been thrillingly expanded to a full-length play which is now more pertinent and important than ever.
Photo credit: Helen Murray