Death of England is a knotty play. Yes, knotty. That’s such a cliche word for writing about plays, isn’t it? Especially when writing about plays that are about things like racism, as this one is – sort of. I looked to the online thesaurus for a better word but it offers up yet more cliches: sticky, thorny, tricky. But, actually, it’s those things, too. That’s not to say the play itself is cliched, far from it. Theatre critics use those sorts of words when plays like this one force them to confront the ways in which their views about the world are problematic. Or force them to take notice of the ways in which they are ignorant about worlds outside their own, even though they’ve always thought of themselves as the cleverest person in the room. So they use words like ‘knotty’. Because it’s too difficult, too exposing, to think about this play – best to stop thinking about it and just say it’s knotty. Job done.
That’s not what I am doing here though (at least I don’t think I am). Walking home along the river after the performance, my theatre buddy and I got completely tangled up in our conversation about it. My sentences started in one place but ended up somewhere completely different – reflections overlapped and contradicted one another. Hearing the conflicting thoughts out loud made me want to reconcile them. But they couldn’t be reconciled; I just got lost in all the knots. While I was watching the piece, I found myself seduced into a false sense of security by one line, only to be stung by the next. By the end of it, I felt like I had been tricked into not just feeling empathy for Michael, I’d been tricked into loving him, too. More than that, I wanted to protect him. He was only a little bit racist, after all.
Roy Williams and Clint Dyer’s play is a developed version of a 10 minute micro-play commissioned by the Royal Court and The Guardian in 2014. At the Dorfman Theatre it’s a monologue ten times in length, performed with indefatigable stamina by an incredible Rafe Spall. This is interesting: a play about England and Englishness performed by a white man but written and directed by Black men. In this way it reminds of Appropriate by Branden Jacobs Jenkins, in which racism and anti-Blackness is explored exclusively through the lens of a white family. This dynamic is more striking in a British context because though the optics of Blackness are missing, they’re not completely absent in the same way they were in Appropriate. And that’s because this isn’t a play just about race, it’s about social class too, and in the UK race and class are inextricably linked in a way they just aren’t in the US. Here – especially in the inner cities – working class culture is Black culture.
Williams and Dyer are so brilliant at capturing this phenomenon. The way British working class-ness has morphed over the years to include the idiosyncrasies of the African and Caribbean people who have migrated here over the decades. It’s intrinsic to Michael’s character – its in the way he speaks with the rhythm and cadence of a rap artist, flipping between proper cockney and that new thing we call inner city London dialect; it’s in the way he walks with a slight bop; or the way he scrunches up his face at the prospect of a seasoning-less meal cooked by his English mother but gets excited at the prospect of food cooked by his best mate Delroy’s mum – even if her jamaican patties make his arse burn. It’s in the way he moisturises his skin with Palmers Cocoa Butter™.
By bringing this dynamic into focus this play shows us that working class is working class – regardless of your race or ethnic origin. Black or white, the working class demographic has more in common than not. And the biggest threat to the working classes is not race or ethnicity, but racism. We saw it play out in the 2019 general election – a divide and conquer agenda meant huge swathes of people from historically working class communities in the north of the country voted to elect the Conservative Party into power. These are people who need things like the NHS, which is being dismantled; free education, which is being defunded; and jobs, which are increasingly low paid at best and woefully underprotected at worst.
The combination of Williams’ writing and Dyer’s direction is especially excellent here. It delivers a humour in Michael’s expressions of his social class through the lens of whiteness while at the same time declaring them as universal experiences that are not specific to whiteness at all. We can all remember a time we’ve gone sat down to a cracking home cooked meal on a Sunday; or when we’ve been to a pub or a park during a football tournament; or that time at the club a mate was off their face on a combination of the exuberance of youth and copious amounts of cocaine. And so we laugh. Not at him but with him, because we recognise bits of ourselves.
It also shows us the complexities of the racism debate. In the National’s recent production of ‘Master Harold’…and The Boys, Harold was a repugnant character with zero redeeming qualities, so when we see his racism it does not present a moral conundrum – we have no problem in condemning him and his actions. Michael is completely different though. He’s a loveable rogue. He loves his best mate (and his best mate’s mum); he likes a bit of a rave up; he shares his biscuits; his face lights up with a mischievous smile in one moment and then crumples with grief right before our eyes in the next. We recognise this vulnerability, and trust him for sharing it with us. It pushes all that other stuff – the racist stuff – to the back of the mind.
And that’s the problem with race discourse in the UK: it ignores the systems and structures that make the thing so impossible to obliterate and teaches us to think that racism is a Bad Thing perpetuated by Bad People. So when people we think are good do racist things, it’s too often concluded that the thing they’ve done cannot possibly be racist. I mean, how can Michael be racist if his best friend is Black? His sister dates Black men, so she cannot be racist either. And his dad used to cover his ears while his right wing nut job mates around him shout black this, black that.
There’s no shortage of plays about racism around at the moment but it’s about time the issue is thoroughly scrutinised from a British perspective. Death of England is a rare gem in the way it does that and – unlike many of the others – it’s not a presentation of what is already known, but an interrogation of the things that have that have been overlooked. It doesn’t provide any answers but it makes facing the questions unavoidable.
Death of England is on at National Theatre until 7th March. More info and tickets here.