Sure, Hamlet killed a few folk, but he never missed a penalty in the Euro ’96 final. There is, of course, nothing more dramatic than football. Or, indeed, anything which dribbles so silkily past our critical defences, making neat passes straight into what we think of as a national psyche.
Think Bend it Like Beckham, which seemed to capture the multicultural optimism of the turn of the millennium; or Green Street, which exploited early 2000s lads lads lads. Or Dear England at the National this year, which saw Joseph Fiennes channeling exactly the opposite with a generous and empathetic portrayal of Gareth Southgate.
“Football is a whole world in itself and a great imitation of life. It’s utterly relatable to such a big group of people and I think that’s why it’s such a good lens to explore complex issues,” says Alex Hill, writer and performer of the exquisitely titled Why I Stuck A Flare Up My Arse For England. His debut play tells the story of Billy, who finds belonging – for good and bad – as a die hard.
It’s a particularly masculine scene that Hill explores, one he experienced first hand both as a season ticket holder of ten years (Brentford: taken reluctantly as a child where “everything changed”) and in the run up to Euro ’20 final, “a wicked atmosphere on Wembley Way that slowly turned sour as the day progressed.
“Tribalism can have its benefits,” Hill explains. “Roy Williams said in an interview for his play Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads that football hooligans fascinate him, it’s not that he condones their behaviour but it makes him wonder ‘what happened to you?’ I find that an incredibly exciting and rich point of view to explore.”
Masculinity seeps between the lines of Lucy Hayes’ Bitter Lemons, too, but as a normalising force which shapes the paths of two ambitious women, one a goalkeeper, the other a banker. “I wanted to write about two fields where the culture was traditionally male,” Hayes explains. “I was interested both in how these characters might struggle against the expectations of their jobs, as well as on some level have desired and internalised them.”
Again, for Hayes football provides a unique artistic route into a culturally salient space. "I think it's the sport that most tracks our national identity. Anyone can talk about or bond over football, and the country feels electric and united during a major football tournament." But there’s a flip side: “Despite this, I'm amazed by how, as a woman, men have always been curious about 'testing' my knowledge, as if everyone is a gatekeeper to a boy's club I've invited myself too.”
Why I Stuck a Flare Up My Arse for England
Football does, it seems, have a knack of shining a light on the fault lines in society – of dramatising its own contradictions: “It feels incredible that although the Lionesses won the Euros last year, we currently have a play about the men's team on at the National Theatre,” observes Hayes.
The same goes for the experience of the LGBTQIA+ community – at once rejected by the sport (30 per cent of football fans around the time of the Qatar World Cup admitted that they’d find two men kissing at a match uncomfortable), and able to find community in its grassroots. That’s the subject of a new play, Pitch, directed by Nell Bailey. “We made a queer group of mates watching the women’s euros last year, and that community has held fast,” Bailey says of her inauguration into the game. And it’s that same peculiar status of the England woman’s team which has provided a springboard for the work: “When Qatar boiled down to a debate about a rainbow armband, and yet the Lionesses brought home the Euros with so many out gay players, it felt like the time to hold that disparity up to the light.”
Pitch is a devised piece, and I wonder if that team spirit had infused itself into the creative process. “Exactly that! It always had to be made with the cast and team. So working with the cast, and with [writer] Tatenda, the shaping of this script has come naturally. The difference here is we didn’t start with a script, so there’s been a huge learning in letting go of control, coming with far more questions than answers, and trusting completely in the talent of the team to find the characters and stories that feel authentic to them.”
So, it seems, footy mirrors art, and art, footy.
There is, though, only one competition that counts. How many keepy uppies can each of them do?
Alex Hill: “I’m absolutely dreadful at football. If I got over 1, I’d be happy.”
Lucy Hayes: “100. I don't have to prove it right?”
Nell Bailey, though, proves the game is nothing without the team: “Me? Like one. The team… Hundreds between ‘em.”