Beautiful mind games

Image: National Theatre

Patrick Mulcahy on the need for leaders who are authentic, emotional and acknowledge their background

Coming at some point to a cinema near you is the inevitable National Theatre Live broadcast of its production Dear England, the latest fact-inspired drama from playwright James Graham. Graham’s eclectic track record has, in recent years, focused on subjects such as televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker, the coughing Who Wants To Be A Millionaire contestant Charles Ingram, and Rupert Murdoch. He also penned the television drama Sherwood. Dear England, directed by Rupert Goold, explores the tenure as England football manager of Gareth Southgate, self-effacingly played by Joseph Fiennes. Appointed in a caretaker capacity to qualify for the 2016 World Cup, Southgate hires ‘culture coach’ Pippa Grange (Gina McKee) to focus on the players’ mental state, in particular the trauma of the penalty shoot-out, the source of his own humiliation in Euro 96. Southgate and Grange are surrounded by an ensemble of caricatures who pop up to remind us of their greatest misses – former prime ministers Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss make appearances alongside former England managers Graham Taylor, Sven-Göran Eriksson, Fabio Capello and one-game wonder Sam Allardyce (Sean Gilder doubling up as the latter).  

Goold infuses the first half of the play with a giddy momentum, with short scenes eventually giving way to stylised training sessions and slow-motion recreations of set piece moves. You find yourself drawn in by the physicality of the cast and the use of chairs and hollow wooden lockers that spin round on a revolving stage. Es Devlin’s stripped-down design features a luminous halo suspended above the cast along with screens that display scores, spot kicks taken and, in the final image, the names of players past and present. Exploring the expectation that the media places upon the team, Southgate immediately tells the group that they are unlikely to win the World Cup. He wants them to play with freedom and without fear, an approach that draws scepticism from the coaching staff, who dismiss Grange as ‘woke’. However, his philosophy yields results. In Russia, the team reaches the semi-finals. In Euro 2020, held in the UK in 2021 in almost empty English stadia, they go one better. 

The production absolutely captures the excitement of a football tournament, albeit through broad strokes. Team captain Harry Kane (Will Close) is portrayed as gormless off the pitch. “Why did you pick me as captain?” he asks Southgate. The answer is obvious: Kane reflects some of Southgate’s own emotional fragility and naivety. 

Grange isn’t welcomed into the changing room; she is told early on she can’t join a group of naked men. Her methods are frowned upon, as she issues each player with a journal. She tells the players to share their problems and oversees the era of the player-activist, embodied by Marcus Rashford (Darragh Hand).  

Telescoping tournament matches, the play takes the audience back to their own enthusiasm for the English game. Brexit gets a mention, but at its heart, Dear England celebrates collective endeavour, players of different backgrounds coming together and supporting one another. Southgate instilled this mentality through penalty taking, informing the players before the game which of them would take penalties in which order and kicking the ball in which direction, taking split-second decisions away from the players so that it was no longer their decision but one that belonged to the team. He encouraged goalkeeper Jordan Pickford (Josh Barrow) to pick up the ball and hand it to the next penalty taker, punching his gloves in the process. The mutual support is thrilling to watch. 

The second half of the play features a partial unravelling of Southgate’s project. Grange leaves the team as she senses that the manager, who insists his players call him Gareth and not ‘boss’, is moving away from her approach. “The team doesn’t need to learn how to win,” Grange tells him. “It needs to learn how to lose.” We hear about one tournament loss inspiring riots. The Euro 2020 final at Wembley inspired no such national mental collapse. 

The play arrives at a sea change moment in the national game – a vote of confidence in Southgate. More than that, it is a drama about having leaders the country can believe in, who are authentic, emotional and acknowledge their background. Statements are made as a group – the play covers players taking the knee in protest against the racial abuse directed against Rashford, Bukayo Saka (Ebenezer Gyau) and Jadon Sancho (Albert Magashi). There is no mention of wives, girlfriends or the players’ personal lives. 

Above all, Dear England is a play about doing justice to the thing you love. It could be football, but equally theatre itself. Graham’s play exudes confidence and simplicity, much like the game. It also acknowledges that the player’s worst enemy can be shame, that they had let others down. In Graham’s production, which I predict will be a sell-out hit, collective endeavour wins through.  

Dear England is playing at the National Theatre until 11 August 2023. 

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