fbpx Dear England/England Now | HowlRound Theatre Commons

Dear England/England Now

In 2016, the same year that the United Kingdom narrowly voted to leave the European Union, Gareth Southgate was asked by the Football Association (FA) to become the temporary manager of the England men’s football team. After a series of positive results, he was made permanent. However, England’s familiar woes continued in the shape of losing penalty shoot-outs to decide crucial legs of big tournaments. This forced Southgate to tackle his own footballing chip on his shoulder. In 1996 as an England player, Southgate missed a crucial penalty shoot-out which cost them the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Euro semi-final. Forced to confront the decades of guilt and social vilification that he has carried in him for that miss, he realized that the present squad had to conquer their own penalty fears. To assist in this process, he hired the sports psychologist Dr. Pippa Grange, and consequently the team was successful in winning a penalty shoot-out in the World Cup against Columbia in 2018. Dear England, James Graham’s epic play at the National Theatre (NT) (which has transferred to the West End), charts these early years and finds resonances between theatre and football, life, and politics.

Directed by Rupert Goold, the show got mostly rave reviews, save for some barbed criticism from the New York Times, where the critic believed that the portrayals of the footballers tackling a culture of toxic masculinity showed them as weak and that the slagging off of the United Kingdom’s political leaders (one of Graham’s inspirations was the 2016 Brexit result and there’s a scene where the United Kingdom’s lacking political leaders are depicted as grotesque caricatures) “pander[ed] to the assumed prejudices of cosmopolitan London theatregoers in a way that comes off as ingratiating and smug.” There’s much that could be written about these salient points, but that's not for here. Instead, using Dear England as a kick-off, the idea is to discuss the notion that theatre in the United Kingdom might have a few things to learn from football.

A man in an England football jacket speaks on stage.

Joseph Fiennes in Dear England by James Graham at the National Theatre. Directed by Rupert Goold. Scenic design by Es Delvin. Costume design by Evie Gurney. Lighting design by Jon Clark. Movement direction by Ellen Kane and Hannes Langolf. Sound design by Dan Balfour and Tom Gibbons, with additional music by Max Perryment. Video design by Ash J Woodward. Photo by Marc Brenner.

History, Hang-ups, and Context

According to a Telegraph article by Jasper Rees, many plays about football put fans at the center. Peter Terson’s Zigger Zagger, which is about football hooliganism, and two Roy Williams pieces, Sing yer Heart Out for the Lads and An Evening With Gary Lineker, are all cited. This trend is perhaps understandable, considering the immense historical demonization by the British media of football fans and the parallel rise of fans’ racist attacks on players on social media. Football fans seem to be fair game when it comes to exploring the afflictions of British society as a whole; there is no bigger arena in which racism or homophobia can so overtly and publicly rear its head. Terson’s Zigger Zagger was the first football hooliganism play in the 1960s,when the football hooligan had supplanted the teddy boy as the tabloid’s favourite folk devil.

Of course, not all football fans are hooligans, racists, or homophobes, and a large majority do not abuse the players of the teams they support. More recent plays are starting to engage with the areas where fans, footballers, and communities meet. In 2016 Ian Rickson directed Patrick Marber’s The Red Lion at the NT about grass roots football. In 2014, Lung Theatre (co-artistic directors Helen Monks and Matt Woodhead), who campaign on issues their shows are about, made The 56, commemorating the Bradford City fire that took place at Bradford City Football Club’s stadium in 1985, claiming the lives of fifty-six fans. This drew on local testament from affected communities and was supported by City’s Remembrance Panel. Even more recently, Football Freddie, created by Leeds based participatory family theatre group Fidget Theatre (co-artistic directors Ruth Cooper and Andrea Heaton), toured northern England with a focus on female footballers, piggybacking on the growing national interest in the women’s game. Kids were coming to see the show in their football kits. Could it not also be that fans become such important protagonists because football clubs put them at the heart of their communities, with emphasis to the young that they could be footballers too?

Art and football also come together through the discussion of stories and how they can be used in a positive way to change attitudes and free oneself from the past.

High Pressing: A Short Critique of Dear England

Dear England, however, is altogether a different breed of play. It explores society’s projection of itself onto a band of young men carrying the hopes of the country on their backs, as well as the routine vilification that some British newspapers carry out against players, and the team’s subsequent struggles to wrest back their power. A scene where Southgate interrogates the three act structure seeks to charge the players with the idea that they as individuals and as a team can invent their own stories. On a different level, the play also seems to be a cry for a different kind of leader than the ones offered by our ineffectual politicians and for a kinder country.

It is interesting to see how the show does this. The young players take on the media (as they did in real life), bypassing them by using Instagram to get their messages directly to their fans. In one scene, player Raheem Sterling directly addresses fans to discuss the origins of his “gun” tattoo, for which he was wrongly vilified by media outlets. In a world where the politicians use spin via cosmetic selfie videos on Instagram, the players’ blunt presentations are a breath of fresh air.

Art and football also come together through the discussion of stories and how they can be used in a positive way to change attitudes and free oneself from the past. Therapy, a well-used dramatic device, makes an appearance by the way of Grange. She gets the players to open up to each other, an exercise so that they can trust each other more on the field. Beliefs and attitudes about masculinity are challenged in the changing room scene where the footballers exchange personal stories and hug one another, and again when Southgate writes his infamous letter to fans, “Dear England,” expressing his views on those followers who abused footballers because of their performance or because of their race. The moment is given center stage, worthy of any Shakespeare soliloquy, as if, through Southgate, the creatives are directly addressing the country.

Theatre and Football

Football fan Nikolai Khalezin, co-artistic director of Belarus Free Theatre, utilizes the Total Football philosophy (in which any player can take on the role of anyone else in the team) for the company’s ensemble. For Khalezin, this means that all of the ensemble’s members can play each other’s parts, design and make costumes, design the lights, drive the van, etc.

In contrast, Rickson sees parallels between his job as a director and that of being a manager (to prep for The Red Lion, he read many manager’s biographies). He says that both have to employ a vision but, at the same time, allow their players to play. Writing to me, Rickson pointed out that while he didn’t think that theatre needed to work on attracting football fans in particular, it did need to “work on renewing its audiences” through more affordable ticket prices.

For co-artistic director of Fidget Theatre Ruth Cooper, football can help reach those audiences who are culturally deprived in places like Leeds while working with organizations such as Manchester’s National Football Museum to do so; they were heavily promoting the idea that football (and theatre, too) is for everyone via This Girl Can (a national campaign to draw more women into sport). Fidget Theatre has said that football, in the north at least, is obviously more popular than theatre.

A woman in a modern football uniform and a man in an old-fashioned football uniform stand and speak during a performance.

Rhiannon Canonville-Ord and Richard Kay in Football Freddie presented by Fidget Theatre. Written and directed by Ruth Cooper and Andrea Heaton. Design by Emma Williams. Sound design by Ed Heaton. Photo by David Lindsay.

But Rickson also gave me an unproven fact. More people, he wrote, watch theatre on a Saturday than go to a Premiere League game, and it is just that one pastime is marginalized and the other is given increasingly larger coverage. If both Cooper and Rickson’s statements are true, then football has an issue with getting people to see live games, as seeing it down at the pub might be cheaper. And theatre has just the same old issue as it always has: people can’t or won’t step inside a theatre (“as if they are going to the dentist” Woodhead wrote me) but don’t have the cheaper option of seeing it on television either.

Rickson also said that football draws players from a much wider social mix, while in theatre it is getting harder for working-class actors to “train and subsist.” The ability to study the arts at school in the United Kingdom has been vastly reduced by this government, and access to drama schools, especially now that fees have risen, means that only those who can afford it will go on to graduate study. There are weekend drama schools available for young people, but they are costly and don’t always pave a way into the industry. On the other hand, football academies for kids—which are free if the child is talent scouted—have a heavily outlined course curriculum that can be followed to make it to being a professional. This is a result of significant restructuring and investment from the FA, which came about because the association wanted football clubs to be able to scout for talent right across the country and not just in their local communities.

I bet any theatre would give their right arm for the kind of passion and commitment a football club can achieve with its fans.

Theatre has a problem in terms of how it is going to get a wide cross section of society working in it in the very near future. There is no national body similar to the FA that could invest and put in nation-wide structures to feed talent directly into theatres. But if theatres in the United Kingdom reintroduced their repertory system or followed the Joan Littlewood model, where the same set of actors were engaged on a long-term contract, then these could act as training schools and entry points to the industry. A good example for this is Belarus Free Theatre. Its student school, Fortinbras, feeds directly into their ensemble and will take anyone, especially those untrained in conventional acting practices. Its only requirements are self-discipline and commitment. City theatres in Kosovo adopt a similar method in order to feed and sustain their playhouses (their problem is that there are too few training schools).

Disparities Between Community Relationships in Football and Theatre

Football clubs are so good at building fans and communities (or perhaps it is the other way around). Go to either a football match or a play in the United Kingdom and you will have the same opportunity to procure a program with information about the match or show. But there will be major differences. Most football programs have a manager’s address to introduce the match. Most theatre programs, in comparison, do not feature notes from the artistic directors of the theatre, or even notes from the play’s director, although there will be essays from creatives and academics. How many people are aware of who runs the theatre they are visiting? Do people need to know the values of the place and why the artistic director has programmed this show?

At some theatres, artistic directors do hang around and they get to know their spaces and audiences intimately. But at most theatres I go to, the artistic director is an unknown presence apart from at press night. This lack of connection can make the theatre seem inaccessible and create distance between it and its audiences.

Think about the relationship fans have with their managers (albeit formed with different “goals” at stake). Win or lose, most managers, like Liverpool Football Club’s (LFC) manager Jürgen Klopp, engage directly with fans at the end of the match by punching the air or leading affirming chants. It helps the fans to feel a sense of connection and the sense that they are all in this together. This is not really replicated in theatre. Two theatres I know that might go against such a trend are Belarus Free Theatre and Lung, who speak to their audiences as friends before and after their shows and implore them to get involved in the topics their shows are about.

Of course, theatre and football call upon different kinds of allegiances. But I bet any theatre would give their right arm for the kind of passion and commitment a football club can achieve with its fans. I am not criticizing the work of theatremakers. They work extremely hard, and with considerably less money than those who work in football. But I do think that the commitment communities and audiences show their local theatres could be harnessed more. Woodhead agrees. He wrote to me, “When the funding dries up and theatre is in its hour of need, we won’t be thinking nationally. It will be the people on our doorstep we will be turning to.”

Artistically, theatre might not have much to learn from football, but in terms of writing its own story, and of harnessing the power of the communities it serves, it could borrow one or two ideas from the game.

Community Action

Many football clubs use their foundations to organize creative projects, and fans’ collectives collect for food banks and other organizations. Some football clubs are even venturing into the arts. Last season LFC’s charity foundation arm ran a successful literacy program with prominent Japanese publishing company Kodansha to encourage Liverpudlian youngsters and adults to write their own stories inspired by the philosophy of inspiring impossible stories and “generating rich narratives.” Named inspiRED, it is a reference to both Kodansha’s own philosophy and LFC’s. Representing Kodansha, Akiko Kamiya told me that the company’s relationship with LFC began after they interviewed Klopp and realised that LFC and Kodansha share similar philosophies. She wrote, “Both football and publishing serve as meaningful platforms for emotive storytelling.”

Probing further, the foundation also supports young people on theatrical placements through its creative works program. When I asked their program manager, Danielle Shields, whether football in general could get more involved in theatre to access shared communities, she said it was already happening at LFC via Liverpool theatres such as the Everyman, the Royal Court, and the Lighthouse Project.

Of course, theatres also have community projects, many of which feed into shows. And during the pandemic, many opened their doors to become temporary vaccine centers or organized food runs. Individually, theatre companies take stands on social and political issues. UK-registered Belarus Free Theatre continually lobbies Washington, London, and the European Union over Belarus and Ukraine. Good Chance Theatre has taken a stand against the United Kingdom’s illegal refugee policies led by Home Secretary Suella Braverman. Lung is doing incredible work with shows based around political campaigns, most recently about suicide in the United Kingdom’s prisons.

A man in business attire cheers in front of a team of football players.

Rhiannon Canonville-Ord and Richard Kay in Football Freddie presented by Fidget Theatre. Written and directed by Ruth Cooper and Andrea Heaton. Design by Emma Williams. Sound design by Ed Heaton. Photo by David Lindsay.


To return to Dear England, the last place these two great industries meet is via story. The late playwright Sarah Kane once wrote in a Guardian article that you could walk out of a play and not miss much, but you could not walk out of a football match, because anything could happen. This is ironic, seeing as Dear England is all about story. I think Kane was trying to call for a new way of making theatre—one that tore up the rule book. Her provocation is unanswerable. Football is a drama that can never be written unless it is staged. Artistically, theatre might not have much to learn from football, but in terms of writing its own story, and of harnessing the power of the communities it serves, it could borrow one or two ideas from the game. More people should care about theatre as much as they do football. Woodhead wrote, “A golden thread runs between theatre and football. They are both pieces of communism in action.” It is up to theatre to pick up that golden thread. And, dear England, your theatre needs you.

Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark


Add Comment

The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

Newest First