Tuesday 3 March 2020

Death of England at the National, or, Too Much on One Level

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 22nd February 2020.

It takes great talent to sustain a 100 minute single-hander play. Rafe Spall throws a huge amount of energy into this new work at the National, but from where I was sitting he didn't equal the recent, subtler work of Laura Linney and Maggie Smith at the Bridge, though he is hampered by aspects of both script and staging.

Clint Dyer and Roy Williams's play concerns Michael, a white man running a flower stall struggling with problematic relations with his family and generally furious with the wider state of the world. The authors' aim, I think, was an investigation of white racism, of the kind of people who are thought to have voted for Brexit. It is certainly significant to have such an investigation written for the stage by two black writers - but they don't achieve a penetration of those issues to compare with recent work on the American dimension of these themes by the black American writer Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (most notably in his fine Appropriate seen recently at the Donmar). We may hear a great deal about what Michael thinks but the play does relatively little to explain how he has come to think this way. Its treatment of politics is superficial - there's a moment when Michael admits that he didn't even vote in the Brexit referendum which is just crying out for further exploration, but rapidly passes as the rant continues. As a result the play doesn't emotionally earn the closure it conjures. Indeed it did worse than that for me, with its (spoiler) use of a voice from beyond the grave, which effects a too easy reconciliation, and again does not allow for sufficient examination of how the situation allowing for that voice had arisen.

The weaknesses of the play aren't helped by Clint Dyer's staging and Lucy Cullingford's movement. The stage is a cross (lit suggestively red at the outset) with audience in each of the four squares looking up. Spall bounds around on the cross and periodically down among the audience. At the outset the play is determined to force audience interaction, dropping shirt wrappers in people's faces, offering them biscuits. This may well work differently for others but my natural reaction to this kind of forcible engagement is to reject it. I expect plays to earn my engagement not force it. So I started alienated, and the play never really succeeded in engaging my emotion. Given the themes of the play one might expect, as a white middle class audience member, to find unexpected prejudice in oneself, or to be made uncomfortable in some way - but the play really didn't achieve either of those effects as far as I was concerned. I could take it or leave it, and as it dragged on and finally struggled to work out how to end, I was increasingly inclined to leave it.

The production also doesn't seem too clear who we as the audience are supposed to be when Spall is interacting with us. Clearly by the end we're meant to be the crowd at the funeral, but earlier on it's much fuzzier - if he's actually addressing people the whole way through, as the interactions suggest, it needs to be clearer who he thinks we are and why he's telling us all this. The failure to pin that down again hinders emotional engagement.

The setting, by Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey and ULTZ, is also a misjudgement. It gets stuck halfway between trusting our imaginations and feeling the need to provide visual reinforcement for Michael's stories. Many of the props felt ineffectively tokenistic to me. Then about half way through there's an abrupt decision that a big set piece bit of staging is needed, complete with flames. I found it overblown and unnecessary.

Spall certainly has potential but he doesn't have that absolute command that Linney, Smith and (in his rather different one person show) McKellan have all recently shown in London. The central issue is one of range. This performance is all too much at one level. Maybe the implication is that Michael is exactly the same person whether giving a public speech or speaking in a more intimate context but I didn't find that convincing if it was the intention. Perhaps it's an issue with sound design flattening dynamic range - I'm fairly sure I spotted a mic.

I was in a minority in the audience many of whom including my partner gave this a standing ovation. I wasn't close to being tempted to do the same. As far as I'm concerned, though there are points of interest, this is overall a missable show.

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