Joseph Fiennes will star as the England manager in James Graham’s drama about a “gentle revolution”.
Joseph Fiennes is to play England men’s football manager Gareth Southgate in a new play about the pressure of penalties at the National Theatre.
Writer James Graham said Dear England would highlight the “gentle revolution” in the team’s culture under Southgate.
It is inspired by Southgate’s journey since his infamous penalty miss for England in 1996, and how he has fed into changing notions of masculinity.
Graham hopes to examine “the identity of a football team and the country”.
“I think what has happened to the men’s England football team over the past six years has been quietly extraordinary,” the award-winning writer told BBC News.
“It’s been humming along in the background, but we’re only starting to really understand now Gareth’s gentle revolution.”
Southgate took on the role when the England team was at its “absolute lowest ebb” in 2016 amid an “existential crisis about why we’d lost our way” and against the backdrop of the Brexit vote, Graham said.
The new manager began to “ask big questions about identity” and about how his players could free themselves of the burdens of the past, particularly regarding England’s awful record in penalty shoot-outs.
“What makes it Shakespearean obviously it goes back to his moment in [Euro] 1996, when he felt all the weight of that history and the pressure and expectations on the moment that he missed that penalty,” the writer said.
“Cut to 22 years later, he is the one who breaks the penalty curse for the English football team, allowing them to win a World Cup penalty shoot-out for the first time.”
Dear England, which takes its name from an open letter written by Southgate to England fans in 2021, will also touch on some of the “ghosts and demons” of the recent past, Graham added, with reference to the racist abuse suffered by England players who missed penalties at Euro 2020.
The play will open at the National’s Olivier Theatre in June.
While the parts of players like Marcus Rashford and Harry Kane are yet to be cast, the producers have called up one big international name, in the form of Hollywood star Fiennes.
From Shakespeare to Southgate
The actor – like Southgate, a 52-year-old Englishman – received a Bafta nomination for his portrayal of the Bard in the Oscar-winning film Shakespeare in Love, and has also starred in The Handmaid’s Tale.
“Joseph is one of our great actors, and he hasn’t been on stage for a while,” Graham said.
“We sort of joked together – him, me and the director – that your return to stage would normally be Henry V or King Lear, not Gareth!
“But I do think it has that scale, that epic quality, his journey, in the unlikely figure of Gareth Southgate. I hope that’s what drew Joseph to the part.”
National game at the National Theatre
Graham’s other credits include the Who Wants to be a Millionaire coughing scandal-inspired play Quiz, as well as the acclaimed Sherwood TV series.
Dear England will see him back at the National Theatre for the first time in 10 years, since he put on his career-changing Parliamentary drama This House.
“I feel that pressure,” he said. “I relate to how the players and Gareth must feel in terms of expectation, because putting the national game on the stage at the National Theatre is obviously quite presumptuous.
“But with the team we’ve surrounded ourselves with, it all feels possible.”
Dear England will be directed by Rupert Goold, and National Theatre artistic director Rufus Norris described it as “a captivating examination into the complex psychology of the much loved beautiful game”.
The Football Association declined to comment on the new play, although Graham said he and his production team have had their own private talks.
The show will come six months after England were knocked out of the World Cup by France in the quarter-finals, with Kane missing a late penalty. Southgate has said he will stay as England boss until after Euro 2024.
It’s “great to be writing a story that hasn’t finished”, Graham said. “My experience of watching England go out to this last World Cup, it was a multitude of conflicting feelings when I was sat there in the pub.
“Because obviously I was waiting for the ending of my story, so while I was sat there grieving England’s loss around my mates, I was also going, ‘What does it mean for my story? What does it say about their journey? Is this good? Is it bad?’
“None of my mates around me knew I was writing this play so I think they were wondering why I was sat silently staring into my pint trying to make sense of it all.”
Meanwhile, the National Theatre has also announced a transfer of Lyndsey Turner’s production of The Crucible to the Gielgud Theatre in the West End this summer.
Dear England will run at the National Theatre from 10 June to 11 August. Tickets go on sale on 9 March.