Tom Hamilton, Senior WriterJul 19, 2023, 04:00 AM ET


• Joined ESPN in 2011
• Covered two Olympics, a pair of Rugby World Cups and two British & Irish Lions tours
• Previously rugby editor, and became senior writer in 2018

The 170 minutes running time of James Graham’s play “Dear England” in London’s National Theatre tells the story of a game played over 90 minutes, a sporting trauma 27 years ago, and an ongoing national rebuild that is seven years and counting. In short, there’s a lot to pack in.

Football’s been taken to the stage before – but not like this, as the play takes us on Gareth Southgate’s redemption story from his penalty miss in 1996 through to his seven years and counting in charge of England. It’s all played out on a stage that’s seen productions of “Macbeth” and “The Crucible” in recent years, rather than Joseph Fiennes donning a waistcoat and portraying a football manager’s ongoing journey.

It’s written by Graham, the playwright behind “Ink” – about Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of The Sun – and many others, alongside screenwriting credits including “Sherwood” and “The Crown.” Fiennes is the star act as Southgate, with Gina McKee as Dr. Pippa Grange – Head of People and Team Development from November 2017 to the end of 2019 – while there are portrayals of former managers, politicians and pundits dotted throughout.

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Though it’s a play about football, it’s about far more than that: The complex issue of national identity is central while the play also focuses on the racist abuse experienced by players after they lost to Italy in the European Championship final in 2021. But anchoring it all is characterisation, the changing trends of masculinity, Southgate’s tenure, sporting drama, all played out under the banner of what it means to play for England.

The cast plays key protagonists from the team that reached the World Cup semifinals in 2018, the Euros final in 2021, and suffered further heartbreak in Qatar last year. You watch Harry Kane go from talented striker to national captain, you see Bukayo Saka break through, you witness Harry Maguire establishing himself, and Dele Alli dealing with his loss of confidence, all against the backdrop of the changing picture of post-Brexit England and shifting political forces.

You watch actors portray footballers we know so well, while putting their spin and interpretation on the players’ character traits, flaws and strengths. Then there’s the writing and choreography as the audience is transported through sporting moments we’ve replayed a thousand times, but never like this on the stage. So, despite knowing the eventual outcome of all these moments, it’s about ensuring you’re enthralled, entertained but also moved again at a familiar memory where sporting euphoria crashed into ultimate disappointment leaving you dealing with those emotions all over again.

Moving football on to the stage is no easy feat. There’s no vast production space which a TV show like “Ted Lasso” benefits from. Sporting interactions and movements have to be confined to the limits of the stage. Here, Wembley stadium is portrayed on the same revolving stage as the team’s locker room. The soundtrack is familiar, with Euro ‘96 anthem “Three Lions”, interspersed with Fat Les’ hit “Vindaloo” from the 1998 World Cup, all mixing with The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony”. So it’s expert choreography, the use of movement and acting that transport those images of Southgate’s miss against Germany, the goals, the sadness and the drama to the theatre on London’s South Bank.

When co-movement director Ellen Kane received the call asking if she was interested in doing the play’s choreography, her first thought was to wonder whether she was the right person. “I was sort of very open and I said, ‘Look, to be honest, I’m not a huge football person so I don’t watch football, I don’t know the rules of the game,’” she tells ESPN. “I’m not an avid fan. And he [director Rupert Goold] said, ‘Well to be honest, the piece is actually really about the emotional side of what happens to the players.’”

Kane (no relation) worked with her co-movement director, Hannes Langolf, to put together a plan on how to tell this story with its frequent focus on England’s relationship with penalties. “It felt like a really clear pathway was to explore the sort of emotional texture of that process,” she says. “We talked a lot about that and about the psychology of how fear and how pressure can affect the way that we behave and what that does to a collective group.”

She did have a crash course on the sport with ex-England defender Lee Dixon, whom she knew already. Dixon spent time with the actors looking at the formations, talking them through what type of warm-ups footballers do, and the “temperature” of the dressing room, as Kane puts it. “And then I took that information away and I discussed a lot of it and went through the piece and basically was trying to go, ‘OK, how do we show what’s really great about James’s piece?’

“You feel the progression. And so it was like, ‘Well OK, how do we complement that, and how do we do things like a penalty shootout, you know what I mean?’ And make it feel like the audience are genuinely tense even though some, most people, might even know the result; so I guess it was building, it was using fear, tension, emotional landscape, in order to create a real live experience.”

There have been other plays about football, each focusing on different themes. Ray Williams’ “Sing Yer Heart out for the Lads” focused on racism; John Donnelly’s “The Pass” was anchored on sexuality; while Peter Terson’s 1967 play “Zigger, Zagger” shone a light on hooliganism. Some attempted to replicate real-life moments as a carbon copy – but in “Dear England” the goal recreations are done in an almost ballet-esque manner. The players lift one another for a header at a corner, the movement behind the penalty taker is all in sync, goals are celebrated in slow motion, but crucially they decided to do the whole thing without using an actual football. The action scenes are audience-facing – you get to see the agony and the ecstasy acted out just feet from where you are.

The actors found the choreography challenging but rewarding. “We’re probably not going to look as slick and elegant as these guys who spent their whole lives putting in hours every day to play football,” Kal Matsena, who plays Raheem Sterling, says. “So what we did was try and find the transferable things they do that we could make realistic on the stage. So we focused on the emotion and the intensity and what it meant to those people every moment. And that’s something we focus on; act as actors, is how emotional intensity and objective and what a moment means, how that affects the body.”

Lewis Shepherd, who plays Alli, tells ESPN: “You know, we want to give them our facial expressions and so there’s a bit more life to it.”

But crucially, the match scenes are done without a ball. Firstly there are the pure practicalities of performing on a slanted stage. “We couldn’t really have a ball because the stage was raked so the ball would just roll off,” Shepherd says. But it was about more than pure logistics. “I think it was obviously a risk not to use the ball, like I was like, ‘Oh, this is going to be OK, because the actor’s connection to the idea that we’re trying to put across is so clear that the audience then lets themselves do the imaginative work,” Kane says. “It’s not just a play with a little bit of movement. It really feels like a whole event that we’re watching.”

Bringing this to life is a group of actors with ranging experience. While Fiennes and McKee are well-established in Hollywood, most of the England team are played by actors towards the start of their own acting journey.

Matsena and Shepherd both studied many hours of YouTube videos, football matches and interviews as they looked for any idiosyncrasies that could aid their portrayals of Sterling and Alli, respectively. With Alli, Shepherd focused on how he holds his arms and hands. “Whenever he is in training kits, he’s always got an Under Armour on, but he’s covering his hands,” Shepherd tells ESPN, speaking before Alli’s interview with The Overlap. “He’s always got his arms crossed, but his hands are under both of his armpits. And I was like, well, what if I take that sort of mannerism? And I’m like, OK, so whenever his hands are exposed, what does that feel like and why does he try and hide his hands? So I took things like that and tried to bring them into the play. When you’re an actor, when you’re younger, they’re like, don’t put your hands in your pockets cause you trying to hide. So I thought that was a really interesting insight into him as a person.”

With Sterling, Matsena spent hours poring over clips of how the England man interacts on and off the field. “The main thing was just trying to balance the theatricality with also the honesty of this person because they’re very alive and they’re very present.” Matsena says. “So my thing was just trying to keep the performance as true as possible, but still making it ring and feel alive. I just wanted to exist, even if it was just the portrait, of how to feel and act like Raheem Sterling. So yeah, watched a lot of how he stood and held his hands, and how he used his hands when he spoke, how he fidgets, what he likes to touch, whether it’s his shirt or his shorts, self-suiters, and stuff like that.”

The whole process gave the actors a greater appreciation for the vulnerable, human side of these athletes so widely admired, and sometimes criticised. “Whenever I try to approach a character, I’m trying to look at it with absolute empathy so that I can fit in that person’s shoes,” Shepherd says. “Yeah, he was young when all of this was happening. He’s like 20, 21. And, yeah, it’s a sad tale. I think prior to this I was in the same boat as most people as you see these footballers and they’re almost like these untouchable beings in our society where, you know, you see them on the TV all the time. They bring everyone vast amounts of emotion, whether that’s joy or sadness or anger, and they’re like these demigods in a way.

“Most of them are under the age of 25, and they’ve been in this football institution their whole life. And so it really, it’s given me a lot more a humanity. I understand that these football players are just like, they’re just people. They’re just lads. You know what I mean? They’re figuring it out like us. And so I’ve got a much more grounded understanding of them as people and I think I’ll be a lot less furious with them when we win or lose because it’s just a game.”

“Dear England” has played to rave reviews in London. Southgate’s tenure has been three Acts – so far – across the three major tournaments. Given he’s extended his time in charge through to the next Euros, it’s an ongoing project, or as Graham calls it, a “quiet revolution.” Just don’t expect the man himself to travel to the National Theatre. “No, I won’t be going,” Southgate said in March. “It wouldn’t feel right. I don’t know what to make of it really.”

But others from both the football and acting worlds have been to see it. And they’ve seen a play about the connection between football and national identity, but underpinning the production is the skill of the writing and acting, and the choreography of how they’ve managed to capture and transport these remarkable moments of English sporting theatre onto the stage. “I felt like what was needed was not to try to replicate a football match because actually you can never really do that,” Kane says. “You’ll never get better than the actual thing in my opinion. It’s not just a play with a little bit of movement. It really feels like a whole event that you’re watching.”