by Rachel Beaumont

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Bloated sentimentality: Death of England at the National Theatre

Death of England
National Theatre
Dorfman Theatre
Gallery R34, £26
21 February 2020
NT page

I wonder if I would have thought more of Death of England in its original ‘micro-play’ format for the Royal Court. In its current shape at the National it is a very well produced, slickly designed piece of sentimentality. As such it’s a squandering of the energy and dare-I-say scenery munching lavished on it by the one man star Rafe Spall.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not unenjoyable, or not particularly unenjoyable, anyway. There are some fun jokes near the beginning. There’s affable audience interaction. The production is snazzy. And Spall, nearly hoarse, is tireless in his devotion to the cause.

But the play haemorrhages tension from early on, probably because note there’s not really enough material to cover an hour and forty minutes. Dramatic non-sequiturs abound. The lengthy funeral speech is caught between extracted absurdity and a striving for realism. The climax, constructed around an undisturbed search history, is unconvincing, and the consequent resolution unearned.

There is a final nail in the coffin. Writer Roy Williams and I guess his mentor Clint Dyer, who also directs, seem unable to resist tying everything up with a nice, sweet bow. Wouldn’t it be nice if we were all nice to each other? they earnestly say at the play’s end. But I already know that it would be nice if everyone were nice. I need a bit more to get me going than that.

I suspect what started out as a striking snapshot of an angle of English experience has been bloated out, David-Tennant-era-Doctor-Who-style, into having to support tepidly huge questions that it was never meant to bear. It’s toothless and a bit boring. But maybe Spall deserves his standing ovation nonetheless, if nothing more than for the sacrifice of his voice.

23 Feb 2020, 10:52 a.m.

Rachel

Thanks for your comment, Angela. I haven’t read the play. I think you’re right that in my review I’ve been unfair in focussing on what disappointed me about it at the expense of discussing its strengths. It requires bravery that you don’t often see to depict racism as Death of England does. Though it’s more common to see masculinity addressed as Williams does here, the balance and care taken are good to see. I should have acknowledged these; but I guess it’s because of these strengths that I was disappointed by a structure and final third that, to my mind, fobbed us off with a simplistic and easy resolution. I’d be interested to hear how you find seeing the full play in comparison with the micro-play.

22 Feb 2020, 6:01 a.m.

Angela

I look forward to seeing this in late February and appreciate your thoughts/sentiments on it. I am currently reading the play and wonder if you’ve done the same. I am an historian who focuses on African-American gender politics and identity during Jim Crow, or legalized race segregation in the United States. Perhaps digesting playwright Williams’s work might provide useful contextualization of the play’s themes that extend beyond mere sentimentality. I am always receptive, and appreciative, given my scholarly preoccupation, of writers and artists that seek to complicate and.bring nuance to ideologies of race, class, gender, and nationalism. From what I’ve derived from reading the play, and viewing video commentary from the writers/ director, this theatrical production has endeavored to do just that. I don’t think concluding the play with a nod to kindness — “can’t we all get along” negates that complex Ideological dynamic. P.S.,the micro-play was brilliant!

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