Dorfman, National Theatre – until 7 March 2020
When the Dorfman gets it right, it really is something special. The combination of our National Theatre’s calibre and the intimacy of its smallest theatre means that when a play dares to do something different in there, the results can be extraordinary. I felt it in the pit for the first run of London Road, in the genius pre-show of Barber Shop Chronicles, and it is now in evidence once again with Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’ epic monologue Death of England, featuring a stunning performance from Rafe Spall, directed by Dyer.
Ferocious and fearless, we first meet Michael on the mother of all benders while he mourns the death of his father and then quick as you like, he flashes into storyteller mode and proceeds to not so much dismantle the fourth wall as to charm it into buying him six pints and then home for an unsatisfactory fumble. For about a quarter hour, Spall sets up Michael’s world beautifully by bantering with audience members with consummate ease, offering a sniff of this, a taste of that, seeking validation too as we come to realise how fragile a man he currently is.
Death of England was first seen as part of the Royal Court/Guardian Off the Page series of microplays and in this expanded version, finds itself a searing insight into the psyche of white, working-class England. Michael’s a would-be Essex wideboy who has lost his job and his wife and is fast approaching 40. But his dad, who used to run a flower stall on the market, now he was a popular salt-of-the-earth, pillar-of-the-community type; he just happened to be a dyed-in-the-wool racist, Brexit-supporting, Sun-reading type as well.
And as his funeral looms, Dyer and Williams explore how Michael can simultaneously reject that racism – he literally has a black best friend – yet also be shaped by it and indeed be just as much a proponent of it. The first utterance of the phrase “black bitch” is a powerfully chilling moment that brilliantly challenges all that bantering we’ve been doing. From then on, a disastrous eulogy and the discovery of some major skeletons in closets pushes the narrative into a more even-handed and empathetic place than you might have anticipated and it is all the richer for it.
Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey and ULTZ’s canny set takes the form of a giant St George’s cross, reconfigured seating bringing the audience close to Michael, and a procession of props are brought out of shelves and nooks and crannies, the most mundane of things treated almost like trophies, the accumulation of a life barely lived. Pete Malkin and Benjamin Grant’s sound design also provides a fascinating new layer of texture to a script that sees Spall delivering some astonishing passages of rapid-fire characterisation and lateral thinking. An admirably intelligent piece of writing; a truly astonishing piece of acting.