It’s not often the Textiliste and I go to see something and disagree about it quite as we did The Death Of England at the National. A one hundred minute manic spasm of a one man monologue with Rafe Spall dominating the crucifix of a stage, reacting to and bouncing off the audience down in the pit is exhausting to watch so goodness knows what it’s like to play. I guess it takes all the time between performances for him to come down from his junkiesque high. If this is adrenaline that is fuelling his performance then they should convert airplanes to use it and they’d eradicate a tonne of carbon pollution. Mind you the planes may never come down once they get up there if Spall is anything to go by.
Spall plays Mark a twenty something barrow boy who, putting it mildly is confused. He’s drugged, boozed and emotionally, lost in his own little East End world. His dad died in his arms watching another England football failure and he doesn’t know how to cope. He wanted his dad’s approval, people’s in truth and in his dad dying he is denied it. Having mucked up his dad’s funeral by insulting the congregation he gets into a fight and then meets someone who upsets all he’d thought about his dad. No more spoilers.
Let’s be honest here. This is a portrayal of English white male racism at its most stereotypical and raw, both Mark’s and his dad’s. But it’s also about place, confusion, the complications and conundrums that make up everyone when you get beneath the surface. We aren’t stereotypes even if that’s what we mostly give out to the watching world.
It’s ugly, this play. It’s uncomfortable and I’ve known people with some of the views and values expressed here. But if I’ve known then more than the surface superficiality I also know how true this portrayal is. There’s no one answer, no glib label that should be applied to anyone. That’s what this says.
Not new. Not rocket science. But generally this point isn’t made through the eyes of a difficult unlovable angry poor white ‘left behind’ representative. This is a guy who thinks his dad has risen above some of the casual racism he thought acceptable twenty years ago but finds that is both true and not true. No, I’m not explaining that illogicality. You need to see the play.
It’s written by two black guys. The reviews make a thing of this. Like it matters. Another example of wokeness. Grr. Apparently that’s brave and praiseworthy. Is it only me who wonders what would have happened if two white writers had penned a story about a troubled black lad from some deprived part of london? Would that be brave or castigated for the writers’ cultural appropriation? Writers can write about all sorts that are not part of their everyday experience and do it well and convincingly. It’s called imagination.
And why didn’t the Textiliste enjoy it? The speed of delivery for one thing. It’s dizzying and tiring trying to keep up. She may not have come across many Mark’s so she didn’t have any real empathy for his troubles. I did. Statistically poor white boys do worse at school than any other group. There are a lot of potential Mark’s out there. Though of course, that’s stereotyping. Sometimes you do need to stereotype to point out a wider problem. How to make everyone feel they belong. At the end of the day, it’s down to how you treat them as individuals not as a class.
It’s a play I’d see again, if only for Spall’s performance. And also for some of the ways in which so many little myths are neatly debunked. Well done. Just don’t expect a comfortable night.