Football, as a beacon of hope and broken dreams, has always been more than just a sport, it is a vector of stories, and it is a dramatisation of life with its own heroes and villains. Therefore, it is no surprise to see one of England’s most intriguing football characters as the main protagonist of James Graham’s (Sherwood) latest work, Dear England, starring Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) as Gareth Southgate.
Dear England, traces the journey of the current England manager from his appointment as caretaker manager to leading the team at last year’s World Cup in Qatar. As you sit down to watch the show, the striking initial impression of the production is the minimalism of the stage.
The actors mount the stage with a jet-black backdrop and an illuminated arch skying above them – no doubt representing Wembley’s famous arch. Throughout the show the only props to feature are red chairs, hollowed-out wooden cabinets, and football shirts hanging on the walls, setting the play in the space and time of English football’s daunting history.
The play has a meta quality about it, self-aware that it is merely a reinterpretation of the theatre that is football. This is evident when Southgate explains to his bemused coaching staff that his plan for England’s team can be divided into three acts and that their first act is to create a new story around the team. For Southgate this new story needs to break away from history, it must heal from the hurt of past tournaments and it must relieve the team from the pressure of expectation.
The spectre of history is the uncredited character of this story, which draws a parallel between England’s history and Gareth Southgate’s own quest for redemption. At the 1996 European Championships, held on home turf, England faced Germany in the semi-finals. They were one game away from reaching England’s first final since 1966, a game of sixes turned into a game of penalties and with both teams at 5-5, Gareth volunteered to take the 6th penalty. Unfortunately for him and for the nation, he missed and Germany went through. 30 years of hurt and still counting.
Joseph Fiennes is undoubtedly the stand-out performer, masterfully channelling Southgate’s calm, almost self-deprecating mannerisms, and his awkwardness in the face of the changes he wants to implement. Gina McKee (Bodyguard) as England’s team psychologist and Head of People and Team Development is another stand-out performer, bringing a calm presence to both the character and the play’s tone.
The cast portraying the England footballers do a great job at embodying their personalities as they exist in the psyche of the nation. The footballers are seen as well-intentioned but unwilling to engage with non-footballing concepts. I’m not sure whether this will necessarily be well-received by the players in question, especially by Harry Kane, who is portrayed as one-dimensional and laconic entity for most of the play. The agency of the players beyond anything comedic or as narrative anchors to reflect moments of doubt or struggle is questionable, which is a shame, as it could have been the opportunity to provide these sporting heroes with a bit more depth.
The inspiration for the play was taken from a letter penned by Gareth Southgate which addressed the nation following a tumultuous few years where Brexit and COVID caused havoc in the fabric of society. The words weaved throughout the letter share a snippet of Southgate’s mentality, his own aspirational vision of what football can do, and his apolitical stance in which representing his ‘Queen and country’ has always been important to him, without ever mentioning the political nature of the country’s turmoil.
The pride of representing your country is reflected through the use of flags and the several renditions of the national anthem. Southgates aspirational vision for football and for society is curated in the conversations that he holds with his backroom staff, ‘proper football men’ unable to see the merit of psychology, compassion and participation trophies.
The turmoil at the heart of society is represented by small cameos from several prime ministers and COVID manifests in the masks worn for a short scene, though they seem to be mere indications of chronology rather than topics dealt with head-on.
At its core, Dear England is an exploration of the stories we recreate as a nation and as an individual. It is a reflective mirror that highlights the importance of facing one’s demons, and one’s own admission of failure, before being able to ask others to do the same.
Overall, the comedic elements of the play, which exist to make the important messaging more palatable, overshadow the important lessons that the play aims to deliver. We are a nation with a history that some see as glorious and others see as traumatic, but nonetheless, a history that weighs heavy on all of our shoulders. Throughout the England team’s footballing journey, the play asks us if we aren’t all burdened by the expectations of what it means to be English?