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28 June 2023

Dear England and the English Question

In his new play about Gareth Southgate, James Graham uses football to explore a contested national identity.

By Jason Cowley

James Graham is not a creator of original stories – a conjuror of something from nothing – but a reinventor of the already known. As a writer of plays, film scripts and TV series, he follows contemporary political events with keen attention – the Brexit referendum and the culture wars that followed, the rise and fall of New Labour, the role of Rupert Murdoch in the takeover and reinvigoration of the Sun newspaper – and then recasts them as state-of-the-nation dramas.

His new work, Dear England, is about Gareth Southgate (Joseph Fiennes) and his transformation of the culture and performance of the England football team since he became manager in 2016 after the sacking of Sam Allardyce. Because it is about football – a game capable of uniting millions of us in ecstatic sociality – it is also about the English Question; about who the English are today and why their sense of national identity is so confused and contested.

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It is also a play about masculinity and how extraordinarily gifted working-class young men inadvertently become icons of modernity and progress – spokesmen for their generation. 

Graham’s England footballers are mostly tongue-tied grotesques, however; Harry Kane, one of the most accomplished and impressive Englishmen alive, is cruelly portrayed early on for cheap laughs, although his character deepens after the interval. But Fiennes is magnificent as Southgate. Not only does he closely resemble the bearded, waistcoat-clad England manager, he expertly captures the flatness of his accent, the awkwardness of his Everyman persona, the twitches and rapid blinking, as well as the thoughtfulness and decency. 

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Directed by Rupert Goold, the play takes Southgate, and the rest of us, on a journey of redemption. We begin with Southgate’s harrowing, sudden-death penalty miss against Germany in the Euro 96 semi-final shoot-out at Wembley and follow him through to the recent World Cup quarter-finals in Qatar, when England lost 2-1 to France. A ball is never once seen on stage. The football scenes – including multiple penalty shoot-outs – are choreographed like ballet and there is music (“Three Lions”, “Sweet Caroline” etc) and video footage. Gary Lineker (Gunnar Cauthery) appears from time to time, high on a gantry, to provide contextualising summaries.

The play can be didactic and sententious and is perhaps too long, but it has vitality, wit, and formal daring. James Graham is fast becoming our national playwright – of these strange modern times, at least.

“Dear England” is on at the National Theatre, London SE1, until 11 August

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This article appears in the 28 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The war comes to Russia