Staff writer Anwesh Banerjee reviews the West End production “Dear England”.
With a three-hour run time and an almost Shakespearean turn by leading man Joseph Fiennes, the West End debut of Rupert Goold’s “Dear England” is a booming, roaring and yet searingly intimate immersive experience.
Walking into the opening of West End’s “Dear England”, I had multiple questions running through my mind. How does a person, who has never seen a single football match in his life, be expected to understand, let alone appreciate, a meticulously staged ode to an entire nation’s bacchic love for a sport? Before entering the theatre, I was handed a sombre-looking production souvenir, which I began flipping through while buzzing audience members gathered. The booklet had extensive details about not just the production itself, but the history of English football with it’s triumphant wins, gutting defeats, and many colourful managers over the years. Finally, there was a section on Gareth Southgate himself – the man on whose monumental career as a manager, this production was based.
Turns out, and pleasantly so, “Dear England” is more than just an ode to English football. At two hours and fifty minutes, this production, directed by Rupert Goold, is an immersive, moving and sensationally thrilling ode to nation-building, masculinity and the enduring spirit of sportsmanship. It is the story of one man and his fraught relationship with the sport that at once made him, and has ever since destroyed him. It is the story of a team of players who are so buried in a nation’s multifarious expectations of them, that they lose sight of their love for the sport along the way — which is what is foundational to their profession. But above all, this massively mounted production managed by Paul Hennessy, eventually turns the spotlight on us – the game’s viewers. And proceeds to ask of us, what it is that we bring to the arena, and how our collective sensation of euphoria and heartbreak determines the lives of a chosen few.
The stage is luminously constructed by set designer Es Devlin, to resemble the circular form of a stadium itself. For the entirety of the production, we as audience members, find ourselves directly peeking into the inner workings of the stadium and its various corners – both on and off the field. We see the players preparing themselves in the changing rooms, fighting with each other in the stalls, attending psycho-analytically designed training sessions and eventually playing the game itself within the same width and breadth of the rotating stadium. In the blinding glow of the circular ring – there is also an immediate sensation of being surveilled by a sea of faceless people, the making of whose collective happiness and sadness lies in your hands (and legs). But this sense of surveillance is also accompanied by a feeling of being trapped – in a national trauma and grief that is cyclic in its mechanism and inter-generational in terms of its inheritance.
The play opens with Gareth Southgate’s (played by an often Shakespearean Joseph Fiennes who is in excellent form) appointment as the new Manager of the English football team. We are quickly informed of how high the stakes are – as Gareth himself puts it, in order to bring home a definitive win for the English team, it is necessary for all the players to understand what is the English team, to begin with. This urgent questioning also comes in the immediate heels of Brexit where the country and its society stand largely ridden with foundational identity questions in all possible spheres in the public domain. Southgate argues that the players are completely fine physically, it is their psychological realm that needs immediate addressing.
Enter Pippa Grange, played by the delightful Dervla Kirwan, whom Gareth meets at a symposium. Initially hesitant to take on the role of the clinical intervenor who will take the players on an inward journey to confront their own fear of failure and losing, her entry into the team raises two critical questions. How sensitive and patient are we, as a nation, to the psychological welfare of our players – across an entire range of sports – who go out there into the stadiums every day and fight out the expectations of millions bearing down on their shoulders? And secondly, it raises the other big question which this play chooses to rather lightly touch upon, as opposed to addressing headlong – the question of gender (we return to this silent and hanging question much later in the play when the men lose the Euro Cup, but it is the women’s football team which emerges victorious). Pippa’s interventions raise more than a few eyebrows. Years and years of being governed by a group of men fail to yield the insights, Pippa, as a woman, raises to the fore in a matter of no time. The fear of failure notwithstanding, she also points out the team’s seminal lack of a collective identity. These aren’t players who come from constituent national clubs and regions. These are players who, despite their constituent national clubs and regions, come to the arena to represent the singular idea that is England.
“Dear England”, while being a novice’s crash course on English football history, is also a football nerd’s dream. The production makes ample usage of archival footage that plays out throughout the play’s action – to give the viewers a more material context to the immediate concerns, conflicts and motivations of the characters up on the stage. Absolute props are due for the way the pre-interval penalty sequence at the Russian World Cup is imagined. You see the players huddle on stage, change into their jerseys and get ready to take their penalty shots. Every second is carefully counted and every movement is minutely charted. When the disappointment rushes through, and we as an audience break for an interval, you have a heavy sinking feeling in your heart – one that is as much an immediate sensation of urgency as a historical revisitation of a loss. But it is to the credit of Goold that a similar penalty is played out to a completely different effect in the Euro Cup finals.
This time, we do not see any player from the opposing team. We instead see members of the country slowly and steadily closing in on our players as they prepare to take the final shot. At this point, those familiar might be tempted to recall Theodore Adorno’s seminal essay “The Schema of Mass Culture” where the theorist quite provocatively talks about the collective hysteria that beseeches a crowd at a stadium and how the same for him, stands as the highest semantic representation of the dialectics of late stage consumer culture. In pandering to the disappointments of millions of fans, where does the love of our game go? At one point, Pippa chimes in, “We are who we are when we lose”. “Dear England” besides being a documentation of the country’s maddening love for an equally electrifying sport also repeatedly emphasizes the need to overcome this very mass hysteria and locate our love for the sport along lines of something much more intimate. Something that is affectionate and that is not divorced from the love that drives the game at its core.
As an Indian, watching this saga I was repeatedly reminded of Hindi cinema’s own popular ode to the hockey sport, the critically acclaimed sports drama “Chak De! India” led by Shah Rukh Khan himself. “Dear England” like all sports stories before it has the trappings of a narrative that panders to the love of a collective. It knows which buttons to hit, it knows it is not divorced from a socio-political reality, it knows to speak – even if briefly – to the rampant sexism that infests our sports cultures. But despite a slightly overboard second half, and an entire audience of people who know the outcome already, “Dear England” manages to make us care. It makes us care not just for Gareth, who comes to the brink of resignation, or Harry who misses the final, losing penalty. But it makes us care for the team of England, with gentleness and care, as one might for a beloved who despite everything has been by our side on days good, bad and ugly. For the sake of it. For the sheer love it.