DEath of England debuted in 2014 as a short drama commissioned by the Royal Court Theater in London and the Guardian as part of a micro-play series. Written by Roy Williams and Clint Dyer, it went on to become two National Theater productions. The first was an extension of the original monologue performed, to rave reviews, again by Rafe Spall as working-class white Michael, formed in the melting pot of a family led by a father who wants to “take back our country. to the Blacks ”. . The second was a monologue by Delroy (performed by Michael Balogun, who also received rave reviews despite being the understudy), Michael’s best friend – unheard of during the outpouring of grievances, doubts and the start. of struggling with a legacy that he knows, somewhere, isn’t all it should have been.
Delroy’s story goes through his childhood as a black British boy, his life as a bailiff and a man (recently arrested), and his relationship with a white woman (Michael’s sister), with whom he is expecting a child. It examines and disentangles issues of identity, belonging, privilege, and existence in a country that rejects you, excludes you, and brings you negative connotations all the time. Death of England: Delroy opened and closed on the same night in November 2020 – a victim of the lockdown measures – although it was subsequently released to a wider audience.
Now the two are combined, cleverly and beautifully, in a feature-length production, Death of England: Face to Face (Sky Arts). Shot for television in the Lyttelton space of the National Theater, this time around Neil Maskell plays Michael and Giles Terera (who was originally supposed to be in the stage production) is Delroy. Set during containment in January of this year, Delroy is seen doubly confined by an electronic tag. Apparently to give his sister a break, Michael takes the baby to visit his father for the first time.
What unfolds over the next 90 minutes in Delroy’s East End apartment is a quick and furious skinning and anatomization of the state we find ourselves in, presented in alternate accounts of each man and, thanks to the hyper-eloquence of the characters and the extraordinary mastery of the actors, covering enormous expanses of ground. Maskell and Terera slip in and out of the voices of different characters to send us back and forth through time and space without ever losing meaning or focus. While there are times when you feel like you’re slipping into didacticism, the recovery is quick and the rewards more than compensatory.
Toxic masculinity – and particularly the way it makes anger the only acceptable and available expression of male emotion – is a central concern, as it was in previous episodes. “What’s the point in me, in me, in humans, in us?” Why can anger rise so fully formed and indignant? Delroy asks desperately, as he recounts confronting the upstairs neighbor, who keeps banging on his floor when the baby cries, and how the moment between conversation and violence is bridged. “I lost words. I was bankrupt, I just didn’t have the language. A fit of anger that I missed, missed, overtook me, who I want to be. It was a line that, for me at least, shifted the dial of understanding.
Race and racism have, of course, been the most pressing concern throughout the trilogy. Here, Michael is a little further along in deciphering his father’s legacy, telling Delroy that the pandemic and his little niece changed him and that he wants to be a better person (“You only care if you literally have skin in the game ”is Delroy’s assessment of not only Michael but the world at large). “Make me understand !” Michael is begging – a request that can be seen either as a sign of hope and progress, or another manifestation of privilege. When Michael tries to redeem himself physically by beating the neighbor, Delroy also points out his white saviorism.
They come and go, in tiny bursts and towering speeches, passing endlessly and smoothly of jokes and debacles, enduring friendship and fragile bonds, tension and tenderness. All of these are given more life and power thanks to a crisp, clever fixture that knows just when to open the claustrophobic apartment with a raised blind on a transom beyond, or close it so we can feel the pressure build up even more. . It’s a deeply impressive achievement, deeply moving, and makes you think England could be saved – might even be worth saving – for now.