What makes a good leader? When the modest and soft-spoken Gareth Southgate was appointed head coach of the England men’s football team in 2016, many fans and commentators felt he lacked kahunas for the role, which he was just too nice. But over the past seven years he has overseen a remarkable transformation in the fortunes of the England team, making it stronger and more exciting to watch than at any time in recent history.
The ups and downs of Southgate’s tenure are portrayed with a mixture of playfulness and moral seriousness in ‘Dear England’, directed by Rupert Goold, which runs at the National Theatre, London, until August 11. blow off steam with plenty of irreverent humor, though the narrative borders on hagiography, and its core message about accepting male vulnerability is worked to the point of soppiness.
The play recounts the team’s involvement in three recent major tournaments, starting with their surprise run to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup in Russia; Then came a harrowing loss to Italy in the Euro 2020 final, followed by an impressive performance, culminating in an unlucky quarter-final exit, at last year’s World Cup in Qatar.
The action on the pitch is evoked through dynamic sets choreographed by Ellen Kane and Hannes Langolf, in which players play out key moments in elaborate simulations, complete with slow-motion sequences and frozen goal celebrations. These are kitsch, but thankfully brief, as most of the activity takes place off the pitch: in locker rooms, team meetings and press conferences whose sets are rendered with clever simplicity by the designer Es Devlin.
Joseph Fiennes is exceptional in the role of Southgate, who is described as self-effacing but assertive, an accessible father figure to his young proteges. Will Close, as England captain and star player Harry Kane, plays the striker’s famously laconic, providing a bathing counterpoint to the coach’s earnest rhetoric. Adam Hugill is just as fun as defender Harry Maguire, who is portrayed as a lovable simpleton – not the sharpest tool in the box, but tough and reliable. Kel Matsena delivers a spirited performance as Raheem Sterling, who, along with Bukayo Saka (Ebenezer Gyau), speaks out defiantly against racism after black England players were targeted for abuse.
The main female character in this necessarily male-dominated roster is sports psychologist Pippa Grange (Gina McKee), hired by Southgate to help players open up about their feelings and overcome self-doubt. When an unreconstructed member of the coaching staff questions the need for her services, she reminds him that psychology has been at the root of England’s past failures: “They are men, who deal or not with fear,” she says.
The play’s author, James Graham, is known for his political theater, with hits such as “Ink” and “Best of Enemies”, and “Dear England” has distinctly militant overtones. Southgate’s gentle nature, emotional intelligence and leftist politics – he supported Black Lives Matter and was outspoken about mental health issues – are kryptonite for a certain kind of reactionary sports athlete. So it’s tempting to see his story as an allegory of culture warfare, pitting sensitive liberalism against old-school machismo.
Unfortunately, the play leans a little too heavily on this, with pantomime cameos from several of Britain’s recent Conservative prime ministers – Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss – pandering to the supposed biases of cosmopolitan London theatergoers in a way which turns out to be elusive and sufficient. It intensifies in the second half, which is considerably less fun and feels rushed: the 2020 and 2022 tournaments are moving at high speed, unlike the more leisurely pace before intermission.
Southgate’s playing career is best remembered for a decisive failure in a penalty shootout against Germany in the semi-final of the 1996 European Championship, played in London, which resulted in the elimination of England in this tournament. A personal redemption tale forms a compelling subplot to the main story, and it’s a cruel irony that England’s Southgate side also lost the Euro 2020 final in a penalty shootout at residence. That Southgate has yet to win a trophy – the England men’s team have yet to win a major tournament since 1966 – remains a powerful trump card for his doubters. And so the festive tenor of the piece seems a bit out of place.
Yet “Dear England” is not so much about sport as it is about culture. The technical and tactical underpinnings of the revival of the England team are grossly underestimated in this account: the improvement of the team on the pitch is directly linked to a change in moral values, and we are given understand that correlation equals causation. You can fully agree with everything Southgate stands for and still find it sickeningly simplistic.
Until August 11 at the National Theatre, London; nationaltheatre.org.uk