In June 2021, just before the start of the European championships, the England manager, Gareth Southgate, penned a letter addressed to English football fans, to the whole nation effectively. It outlined the importance of football in society, the nature of support for the England team, the role of social media, as well as the rejection of racism in sport and beyond. It was a thoughtful letter by the football manager who had steered England to fourth place in the 2018 World Cup, to the final of Euro 2020, and to the quarter-finals of the 2022 World Cup.
This address has now become the title of a play by James Graham, who, ever since his first great success, This House, has explored political issues on the stage. Dear England, which is directed by Rupert Goold, looks at the changes that have happened in and around the England national team ever since Southgate took over. Through some inventive stage design, including videos and sound effects, the show reflects on the cultural changes which Southgate has initiated. Joseph Fiennes (picture), who bears an uncanny resemblance to Southgate on stage, plays the role of the England manager. His soft enunciation and reflective monologues convey the nuances of what Graham has called the “gentle revolution”. The play delineates an arc, from Southgate’s missed penalty at Euro 96 to England’s failures in winning penalty-shootouts (until the England-Colombia match at the 2018 World Cup) to the briefly mentioned success of the women’s national team at the 2022 European Championship. Southgate’s willingness to take on the culture of the national team which he had inherited, his introduction of a sports psychologist (played by Gina McKee), his reshaping of the relationships between players, the difficult apprenticeship of learning how to lose — all of these elements feature at the centre of the narrative as envisioned by the play. Ultimately, it explores the construction of the national identity and the role played by football in the process. That Southgate’s tenure coincides with the Brexit moment adds a further dimension, embodied comically by caricatures of recent prime ministers, from Theresa May to Boris Johnson.
But how well does football fare on the theatre stage? What can theatre bring to an understanding of the relationship between sport and the nation? Graham is not the first playwright to transfer the football stadium on to the stage. While it is often easier to represent supporters and to address issues connected with football through an investigation of fandom, several plays have tried to focus on teams and players, such as Patrick Marber’s The Red Lion, about a non-league football club. Plays about football tend to focus on issues that are brought to life by football rather than on the nature of the game itself. Although Dear England does include a penalty shoot-out, it inhabits the inner world of the changing room. The drama lies not so much in the epic dimension of the game as in the passions that fashion football and its supporters. Marber’s play, in the playwright’s words, was about belonging and loneliness. Dermot Bolger’s two plays about the Irish football team, In High Germany and The Parting Glass, reflected on the changing definitions of the nation through support for the national football team. Roy Williams’s Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads explored the workings of ordinary racism. Likewise, by staging Bukayo Saka’s penalty miss in the final of Euro 2020, Dear England touches on racist attitudes still rampant in football but prefers to spend more time investigating the turnaround in the cultures of masculinity implemented by Southgate.
Although several great sportspersons, from the tennis player, Bill Tilden, to the footballer, Eric Cantona, have sought a career on the stage after leaving sports, the power of drama enables us to look through and beyond sports at issues that define the societies in which sports take place.
Alexis Tadié is Professor of English Literature at Sorbonne University, Paris