Roy Williams has primarily focused on the challenges of working class masculinity in recent years through his extraordinary play cycle the Death of England, a trilogy co-written with Clint Dyer, that became an instant modern classic as friends Michael and Delroy individually set out their experiences before coming face-to-face in the third installment released as a cinematic film. This year though, Williams is looking at the female experience with a rumored fourth monologue for the Death of England, this time for the pivotal Carly who links the friends, and Williams’s contemporary interpretation of Hedda Gabler opening at the Lyric Theatre in the autumn as Heather. But first, female friendship is the focus of his latest play The Fellowship, premiering at the Hampstead Theatre as class, race and past activism haunts this family saga.
Williams is particularly interested in intense friendships between two people, in this case sistsers Dawn and Marcia, and the events or people that come between them. As with Delroy and Michael, the strength of that bond is the focus of the play and how a sense of ‘otherness’ disrupts and sometimes destroys what they all have assumed would be a lifelong association. First, that otherness tends to manifest physically as a rocky relationship with a partner that disrupts the balance between the friends – in the Death of England, Delroy’s tempestuous involvement with Michael’s sister Carly contributes to the breakdown of their friendship, while here in The Fellowship both sisters have questionable love interests, ending up with men that the other despises.
But otherness is also about interactions between race and society, creating fault-lines within these established relationships that are more deeply exposed through the action of the play. Often inherited from a previous generation, Death of England is dominated by Alan’s deeply embedded racism that comes to play an important role in the deterioration of his son’s friendship, culminating in the pivotal concluding scene in Michael’s monologue which then becomes the starting point for Delroy’s. Here, it is Dawn’s vocal condemnation of white power that comes between the sisters and has intriguing personal and professional consequences for them both as former activist Dawn reels from the discovery of her son Jermaine’s relationship with Simone, a white woman she loathes, while Marcia insists she has taken her place as one of the few black barristers to have made silk as Williams uses his 2019 setting to explore whether being in the room is enough and what happened to the fight.
The Fellowship also has its own focus on inheritance and the troubling cost of legacy, looking across three generations of a single family from the absent grandmother of the Windrush generation through Dawn and Marcia’s experience of riots in the 1980s to son Jermaine in 2019. What has each of these generations left for the next is Williams’s focus, what did they achieve for those still to come and what are the mechanisms of inherited trauma? Does each new age pick up the baton from those who came before or – as Williams suggests here – is each generation cast adrift from its predecessor and successor, left to fight its own battles perhaps for its lifetime but with little tangible achievement, wisdom or support to pass on, everyone always starting again.
This notion of estrangement between the generations is a powerful one, played out in two ways, initially between Dawn and the son that she is fiercely protective of but with whom she finds it difficult to communicate. A hidden relationship with someone Dawn disapproves of leads to an important confrontation at a family event in the second half of the play in which Jermaine gives voice to some of the questions that Williams too is grappling with, whether Dawn’s lifelong activism has achieved anything and the legacy that parents are handing to their children – a concern Williams is raising about his own generation who have been shaped by their experience of marches, protests and rioting but wonders about the effect and meaning 40 years on.
But there is an equally important estrangement taking place between Dawn and Marcia and their mother who remains an unseen presence for much of the play, remaining bedridden upstairs and to whom Dawn acts as primary carer. It becomes an important mark of Marcia’s character that she has entirely disassociated from her mother, leaving the responsibility to Dawn who is the one to have an important elemental encounter. It is a strange scene in contemporary theatre but no more unusual than the ghosts of Old Hamlet and Banquo stalking Shakespearean heroes while also an important feature of Caribbean theatre – something Joubert also utilised.
Williams uses the scene to explore the make up of the Windrush generation – always talked about as a block of people – with Sylvia’s stern and detached approach to parenting which affects her daughters’ characters. As well as creating individuality, turning Sylvia into a credible person with aspirations and faults that directly inform the bigger reactionary elements of Dawn’s character and the sober dignity of Marcia’s, Williams also takes the opportunity to note the ending of their story, that this is a moment where the Windrush generation is starting to die out, moving the experience beyond living memory and subtly asking what that means for this particular family as well as dual heritage black British identity.
As with Death of England, class too plays its part in the complex family dynamic and Williams is interested in how two sisters find their relationship dividing along class lines when Marcia’s profession and status move her into a quite different social circle to her sister. And the contention this generates between them underpins many of the troubled conversations they have about the men they are with, family responsibilities they bear as well as the attitudes and responses to expected social behaviours. That Marcia considers herself a cut above is an important part of the dynamic Williams creates and the fall he sets up for them all.
But The Fellowship is primarily a domestic tale taking place in one room over three hours of performance in which the family unit is the primary driver. A drawing room comedy-drama of sorts, Williams spends some time establishing the close bond between the sisters, their shared love of 70s, 80s and 90s pop music and the small rituals that can only emerge from familiarity and love. The play’s dynamic comes from the holes that Williams starts to create as circumstances pit the sisters against one another, causing them to re-evaluate how well they still know one another and the extent to which they have hidden their real selves behind the habits of their friendship in which both play a comfortable but not quite true version of themselves.
In that, Williams is largely successful, generating considerable heat in the succession of conversations around which this play is structured and through which the various plot points (credible or not) advance the story. Arguably, it may not need all of them and the impact of Marcia’s relationship is lessened by the absence of her partner who could never co-exist in her sister’s world which is predominantly the one Williams is interested in. But by extension, the difficulties that Marcia brings in and the way their consequences play out are undermined by the lack of tangibility, harder for the audience to imagine her in what seems like a mythical place beyond Dawn’s living room with individuals we cannot quire grasp.
The character of Dawn is, however, an exciting creation filled with layers of complexity and questions about her identity that explode across The Fellowship. An ordinary woman who thinks she knows herself and her place in the world, Dawn’s outward bravado and ferocity is underpinned by deep vulnerability as she attempts to reconcile what her life and relationships amount to. How have her role as a mother, partner and sister eroded her sense of self and does her provocative response to most issues stem from a concern that she is no longer in the fight to the extent that she once was, or perhaps the fear that it amounted to very little and her life is as conventional as anyone else’s.
Part of the issue for Dawn stems from being unable to admit who she really is, her hotheaded reactions to perceived instances of white oppression at odds with her secret music tastes filled with white musicians from the Bee Gees to Kylie and Take That – a device Williams uses throughout the show to examine the public / private division in Dawn, the elements she shares with her sister and how much of herself she truly understands, leading to a process of discovery across the events depicted.
Cherrelle Skeete, who stepped into the role at very short notice, finds all of these contradictions within the character, offering a remarkable performance given how little time the actor has had to prepare for the stage. Skeete is caustic but warm, making Dawn someone you would want to keep on side, a great friend if she likes you but a terrible adversary if she doesn’t. This is Dawn’s story and Skeet grasps every moment to sketch out the breadth of this multifaceted woman.
Llewellyn’s Marcia is a contrast, a placid, cool surface with fire beneath, able to command a courtroom and entirely comfortable in the choices she had made for herself. A little comfortable perhaps as a sense of entitlement creeps into her behaviour. Llewellyn creates a woman who both wants her family to think she is the same person that she always was while expecting them to be continually impressed and in awe of her. Ethan Hazzard and Rosie Day are more contextual as Jermaine and Simone rather than fully fleshed out characters. So too is Trevor Laird’s musician boyfriend Tony who is suitably laid back and disengaged to rile Dawn while Yasmin Mwanza as a local police officer and the younger Sylvie makes a great deal of two small roles.
Directed by Paulette Randall on a set dominated by an almost symbolic sweeping staircase designed by Libby Watson, The Fellowship is at its best in the conversations between Dawn and Marcia which Randall paces nicely – particularly given how little rehearsal the actors have had in their present roles. Occasional lags in energy are understandable over a long night and will tighten as the run continued.
If The Fellowship doesn’t quite have the explosive brio and masculine confrontation of the Death of England, that is the difference between the singular voice and a longer, multi-character piece within a family setting with no one decisive event to drive the plot. But Williams’s broader exploration of identity, class and the impossibility of creating and living up to community and family legacy has a quiet power of its own.