This project began as a micro-play at the Royal Court in 2014 and now comes to the National Theatre at the same time ‘Albion’ returns elsewhere. It is no surprise that Brexit has generated a number of ‘Condition of England’ plays, and this work is very much intended to be seen in that light. It is a highly ambitious piece of writing that breaks new ground in a number of respects. However, ultimately it falls short despite a central performance of an outstanding technical bravura and emotional intensity that has not been seen in London this long while.
The play is a bold attempt by two black authors (one of whom also directs) to confront white working-class racism, toxic masculinity in crisis, father-son relationships, and the sheer complexity of even people who seem all-too clear cut in their attitudes and prejudices. A mighty agenda and precisely the sort of concerns modern theatre should be addressing.
Michael (Rafe Spall) is a troubled son of a domineering father who has just died of a sudden heart attack while watching England lose in the World Cup. We begin at a break-neck drugs-fuelled pace as Michael rushes from a one-night stand, to the gym, and to his father’s flower stall, while dressing for the funeral oration that is the centrepiece of the work. But then we get diverted as a sequence of flashbacks introduce us to scenes in Michael’s life – his dysfunctional family, his best friend Delroy, Delroy’s formidable mother, the owner of the local Indian restaurant, whose role turns out to be transformative, and –above all – his relationship with his father.
Each of these vignettes is on its own extraordinary – the writing is vivid and wittily evocative of the variety, poignancy and prejudice of this slice of Essex life and the bravura way in which Spall shifts from character to character and accent to accent is quite spellbinding to watch. But it does mean that the supposed climax of the play – Michael’s speech at the crematorium in which he takes on many of the congregation, and the subsequent reception and scattering of the ashes – lose some of their punch because they have been anticipated already.
Michael stands as a symbol of a nationalism that has lost its way. He mouths the same views as his father without really believing or finding a way of going beyond them. His rage is as much a performance as the genuine article and the anger and despair is over the futility and failure of his life – in both work and relationships. The nervous laugh, the overcompensating bragging and swagger, the self-pity and the lost confusion are all brilliantly rendered in this performance, with plenty of audience interaction that increases the wattage of humour and poignancy.
The problem is that there is just too much of it in the same overwrought tone: there is scope to cut the material down so as to avoid repetition of themes already treated – then the shock of the funeral speech would be greater and the redemptive sequences at the end would be overwhelming rather than just powerful. The unfocused garrulity of the character needs to be suggested, not indulged.
The creative team have done a wonderful job in assisting this play along its path: set designers Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey and ULTZ have produced a cruciform traverse stage in the space where the stalls are usually located. A cross of St George is projected on it to begin with and then it shifts to black. A plethora of props are placed in boxes around the first circle so Spall – or the lighting scheme – can bring them into play as needed. Accomplished direction ensures a fluency of movement which means everyone gets a piece of Spall and no one is ever unsighted. It is a real coup when the main stage opens up to reveal the funeral parlour.
There is no doubt that this is a five-star, award-deserving performance that should be universally applauded; and the same goes for the production values which frame and enhance it. Yet all this quality does not conceal the fact that the play itself needs pruning and reshaping if it is to last or to find another successful incarnation. This is an arresting and thought-provoking evening to be sure; but the play is too relentless and, at points, repetitive to hit its chosen targets with quite the dexterity and light and shade it seeks, and Spall’s energy and invention aspire to. ‘Jerusalem’ it is not.