Back in April, the National Theatre’s decision to open its archive and stream shows for free fundamentally altered our engagement with the arts. And as surely as National Theatre Live did in 2009, it has set us on a new course in which paid-for digital streaming will play some part in the future of and democratisation of audience engagement. On Friday, the National Theatre took the next step – joining a number of other venues – by digitally streaming a brand new piece of work, making it free for just 24-hours.
The Death of England: Delroy managed just two weeks of live performance and marked (quite significantly) the emotional reopening of the National Theatre in October with its new in-the-round Olivier space adapted to social distancing. It closed ahead of its then hastily rearranged official press night and lost its remaining run to the enforced closures of a second lockdown, and while a fuller run will be rescheduled for the Spring, this free stream is an important community contribution that couldn’t be more timely.
Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’s extraordinary play is a companion piece to the Death of England staged earlier this year in the Dorfman which focused on a white working class man, Michael, reflecting on his life in the complex aftermath of losing his father. Delroy is a related but different story about a black working class man whose long experience of inherent racism culminates on one fateful day as he tries to make the birth of his daughter. It is fierce and ferocious writing that references the Black Lives Matter marches and the summer’s lockdown but focuses primarily on the how the political manifests in the personal experience of one complicated young man.
Appearing in tandem with Steve McQueen’s searing Small Axe series which debuted its third film this weekend and the wider release of Riz Ahmed’s first screenwriting feature, Mogul Mowgli, what Britishness looks like in the twenty-first century is absolutely fundamental to these stories as the first waves of post-war immigration and the mixed-heritage experience of subsequent generations challenges received notions of nationhood built around Empire, monuments and misremembered victories. This discussion is the backbone of The Death of England monologues, as both Michael and Delroy confront how different parts of society have attempted to impose their own definition of nationality during the last four years in what has been one of the most divisive periods since the Second World War as the old and new worlds pull against one another.
The starting point for Delroy is a line from best friend Michael – ‘You will never be one of us and you know it,” something said in the heat of the moment as Michael reels from his father’s death, but revealing of how underlying attitudes in the last 70-years have shaped the political debates around immigration and passed them between the generations. The result, (as we observed earlier this year) is that on the surface Michael seems certain of his Englishness (a far more specific term used interchangeably with Britishness in the monologues) and how it is defined by the generic notions of pub, football and glory days metaphors.
When Dyer and Williams first present Delroy in Michael’s story, we are urged to picture him as an anomaly, a black bailiff who voted for Brexit, a mass of contradictions that his best friend mocks because they don’t accord with the filter through which Michael views him, i.e. the experience and understanding of his race. But, in his own story, Delroy has a far stronger affiliation with the cliched characteristics of working class men – a drinking culture, latent aggression that gets him into trouble with the police in this story and the Pro-Leave stance – that make his skin colour a way for other people to categorise what his identity should be and not as he sees himself.
For Delroy, Britshness, then, is a far more complicated discussion about how these multiple national identities, internal and external impressions, as well as his cultural heritage as a UK-born second generation member of an immigrant family can be unpicked in what is a hybrid identity. And while Michael’s exclusionist approach creates theoretical certainty in his definition of nationhood – although how convinced he is by the things he says is highly debatable in Dyer and Williams’s layered character portrait – for Delroy his race and his entitlement to nationality are indivisible as the latter looks to limit his day-to-day freedom, civil liberties and citizenship in the ways described so powerfully through his story. Rather than liberating and protecting him, Delroy’s Britishness is crushed and confined by family, friends, strangers and, crucially, authority figures seeking to impose their racially-charged perspectives, bred on suspicion – this reflects the same uneven relationship between state and individual that Steve McQueen’s Mangrove explores through Constable Pulley’s harassment of Frank Critchlow.
We see this in the crossed catwalk stage designed to reflect the English flag on which both Delroy and Michael’s monologues have been presented. Delroy covers its arms in red paper which becomes increasingly tattered, deliberately ripping a metaphorical hole in the centre as part of the performance to visually reflect the growing disconnection between man and nation. The concept of himself, his rights and place in British society are increasingly eroded as the story unfolds in what is one of the piece’s strongest visual references to splintering of identity.
Mogul Mowgli is a direct comparison here as Ahmed explores his own British Pakistani experience, arguing that changes in demography mean that Britishness now incorporates a far broader definition of nationality, becoming a far more inclusive term than it once was and some want it to be. And while Ahmed’s character makes further space for the complexity of his own personal identity, his film acknowledges, as Dyer and Williams do in Delroy, that these characters and communities still suffer, regardless of their own experiences or social contribution, externally imposed notions of who they are and even more pointedly who they are not.
Masculinity and Class
Dyer and Williams are equally concerned with the notions and experience of modern masculinity, and specifically with demystifying working class masculinity. Delroy in some ways plays into expected tropes, he can be bolshie, likes football and exudes a tribal attitude to life and family, but one of the most fascinating aspects of the authors’ writing has always been this sense of confusion in modern masculinity and how inherited notions of emotionless, tough manliness are challenged by the more nuanced sensitivities of the protagonists they create. For Delroy, his story is motored by a need to be at the birth of his child and an excitement about impending fatherhood that softens his entire being.
We see him alight with the possibility of becoming a better man, a more stable and supportive, even admirable, presence in his daughter’s life than the role models that Delroy was presented with. Delroy is, then, determined to chart a new path, one that circumstances and prejudice prevent him from fulfilling – and through The Death of England, we see how mixed messages and expectations of contemporary masculinity are complicated by class, wealth, opportunity and – for Delroy – skin colour.
His relationship with Carly is fundamental, subverting the norm and, while contentious and certainly fiery, Delroy tries to live-up to her expectations, wanting to be a kinder, gentler as he describes the sometimes tender connection between them even as the performative nature of masculinity distances Delroy from his more emotional side. Crucially, his inheritance is far stronger from his single mother than his absent father so his key relationships in this play are with women, naturally softening the largely socialised determinants of manliness against which his friend Michael seems to test himself.
Michael also experiences this same degree of confusion about what a man is or needs to be in the modern world. And while he inherits a much cleaner template of strength, stocisim and status from his father, you see in Dyer and Williams’s writing that it doesn’t sit so well with his son, that Michael cannot make the pieces fit in a slightly changed society. The time for being that kind of man has passed and Michael knows it, but unlike Delroy his clings to those certainties because they give him a surface security, a grounding and purpose he finds nowhere else in his life. It is fair to say that Michael doesn’t know who he is so the borrowed clothes and views of his father give him some idea of how to be a man, all the while knowing that its is not really how he feels but is too afraid to challenge it head on.
Most fascinating is how completely both Michael and Delroy’s masculinity and behaviours are shaped by the character of Alan Fletcher whose sometimes confusing racism is the template for the type of working-class manliness that imbues them both, even against their will. This has a notable effect on Delroy’s sense of self and agency throughout the play as he remembers the tirades that caused hate to breed while still receiving sporting encouragement from the sidelines. Why Delroy wants to impress Alan is fascinating, as though scoring a goal or being accepted as Carly’s boyfriend will give him a legitimacy he craves and why this is necessary is something that Delroy grapples with until almost the end of this powerful story.
Proving he was never anyone’s understudy, Michael Balogun stepped into the leading role with just two week’s rehearsal ahead of the first preview but the part fits him like a glove. His Delory charms the audience with his cocky swagger that draws us instantly into the story as he dashes between the four corner points of the stage as events speed-up. Balogun is particularly good at recreating the cast of secondary characters that make Dyer and Williams’s world so vivid, employing physical shape and different inflections to add a comic spin to distinct impressions of loved ones and others who shape his experience while brilliantly managing the shifts in time and location that Dyer and Williams use to structure their play.
But most impressive are the depths and sensitivities that Balogun finds within Delroy that add such humanity to the character. How quickly the surface confidence evaporates when left in a police cell, genuinely afraid of what will happen next and the tears he happily admits to. The softness that Balogun reveals when Delroy talks about Carly, his daughter and even his mother play against the low level frustration that builds and builds until Balogun lets loose to the invisible Michael in an intense but moving explosion of feeling. Across this incredible performance, Balogun shows Delroy facing and accepting all the facets of his own identity, becoming the man who can finally look Alan Fletcher in the face and say “enough.”
The outcome of Michael and Delroy’s monologues in The Death of England series is a powerful one, an argument that chimes with both McQueen and Ahmed, that the new multidimensional face of Britishness is an indisputable fact, sewn into the genes, mixed communities and cultural integration of every new generation – and that is something to be celebrated rather than feared. British identity is not a static state; it is still history, monuments and misty-eyed tales of derring-do but it is also the consequences of those event when the British Empire came home. Britain is the past but it is also the evolving story of the people living here now and in the future – as Delroy might say – fact.
The Death of England: Delroy was shown via National Theatre at Home for 24 hours. It will return to the National Theatre stage in the Spring. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog