Sport as a personal quest is not an original subject. The quest is why people play games in the first place; to find out how good they are. Sport as an examination of the national character is more difficult, for nations are untamed beasts, composed of many conflicting elements.
In our hollowed-out culture, scarred by emotional excess, football has become a national pageant. Pity then the young men selected to speak for the nation with their feet. Laden with riches from their teens, many are unable to spell patriotism, never mind define it. Yet define it they must, for the benefit of fellow citizens who cannot imagine a life without football and the exultation it brings.
James Graham, who has established a cosy dramatic life by burrowing into the crevices of the national rock, has now written a play about this obsession. Dear England, presented at the National Theatre in a lively staging by Rupert Goold, is a secular Pilgrim’s Progress, with Gareth Southgate, England’s manager since 2016, portrayed as “he who would valiant be”.
Southgate, played with an eerie verisimilitude by Joseph Fiennes, emerges as a decent man in an indecent world where, as the cricket commentator John Arlott once told me, “the good are outnumbered about two hundred to one”. But white is rarely a convincing dramatic colour, and St Gareth’s Everyman decency swiftly becomes tiring.
The set, designed by Es Devlin, places the action in the Wembley centre circle, with a sequence of rectangular wooden frames indicating the stages of life Pilgrim must walk through on his journey from “the man who missed a penalty against Germany” to national saviour. To make sure we get his sainthood in this world of muck and nettles the illuminated circle above the set represents both the Wembley arch and the manager’s halo.
[See also: The tragedy of English football]
The comprimario roles, filled by Gunnar Cauthery, Crystal Condie, Sean Gilder, John Hodgkinson and Tony Turner, bring comic zest to a fast-moving show. We meet a cast of heroes and villains: Sam Allardyce, Gary Lineker, Gianni Infantino, Graham Taylor and Greg Clarke, the chairman of the Football Association. The writing, however, is too broad. Taylor was never the buffoon we are invited to mock, and Will Close’s tongue-tied Harry Kane is a feeble caricature. Most footballers struggle to speak clearly, even those who wear the captain’s armband.
The scenes with Southgate and Pippa Grange, the psychotherapist he engages, sink like pennies in a fountain. Poor Gina McKee is obliged to mouth platitudes about “fear” and “empowerment”, as Fiennes looks thoughtful in a melancholy way. The most realistic characters are played by Turner and Paul Thornley, practical dressing-room men who know that professional football is no place for theorists, however well-meaning.
“We are going to write our own story,” Southgate tells his men at their first meeting. But this drama, neither realistic nor truthful, offers no development of character, and adds nothing to a familiar tale. England lose important football matches. So long as they value empowerment above the trivial business of practising penalties they always will.
“Dear England” by James Graham runs at the National Theatre, London SE1, until 11 August