Death of England began life in 2014 as a short drama commissioned by London’s Royal Court theatre and the Guardian as part of a series of microplays. Written by Roy Williams and Clint Dyer, it then became two National Theatre productions. The first was an expansion of the original monologue performed, to rave reviews, again by Rafe Spall as white, working-class Michael, formed in the crucible of a family led by a father who wants “to take our country back from the blacks”. The second was a monologue from Delroy (played by Michael Balogun, who also received rave reviews despite being the understudy), Michael’s best friend – unheard during Michael’s outpouring of grievances, doubts and the beginning of wrestling with a legacy he knows, somewhere, is not all that it should have been.
Delroy’s story takes in his childhood as a black British boy, life as a bailiff and (recently arrested) man, and his relationship with a white woman (Michael’s sister), with whom he is expecting a child. It examines and unpicks issues of identity, belonging, privilege and existence in a country that rejects, excludes and brings negative connotations to bear on you at every turn. Death of England: Delroy opened and closed on the same night in November 2020 – a victim of lockdown measures – although it was streamed to wider audiences thereafter.
Now the two are combined, cleverly and magnificently so, in a feature-length production, Death of England: Face to Face (Sky Arts). Filmed for television in the National Theatre’s Lyttelton space, this time around Neil Maskell plays Michael and Giles Terera (who was originally meant to be in the stage production) is Delroy. Set during the lockdown in January this year, we see Delroy doubly confined by an electronic tag. Ostensibly to give his sister a break, Michael takes the baby to visit her dad for the first time.
What unfolds over the next 90 minutes in Delroy’s East End flat is a fast, furious flaying and anatomisation of the state we’re in, laid out in alternate narratives from each man and, thanks to the hyper-eloquence of the characters and the the actors’ extraordinary mastery of it, covering enormous amounts of ground. Maskell and Terera slip in and out of different characters’ voices to send us back and forth in time and space without ever losing sense or focus. If there are moments when it feels as if it may be slipping towards didacticism, the recovery is rapid and the rewards more than compensatory.
Toxic masculinity – and in particular the way it renders anger as the only acceptable and available expression of male emotion – is one of the central concerns, as it was in the previous instalments. “What use is it in me, in me, in humans, in us? Why can anger rise so fully formed and indignant?” asks Delroy, desperately, as he recounts confronting the upstairs neighbour, who keeps banging on his floor when the baby cries, and how the moment between talk and violence is bridged. “I lost words. I was bankrupt, just didn’t have the language. A fit of anger that missed my self, missed me, went past me, who I want to be.” It was a line that, for me at least, shifted the dial of understanding.
Race and racism has, of course, been the most pressing concern throughout the trilogy. Here, Michael is slightly further along in his unpicking of his father’s legacy, claiming to Delroy that the pandemic and his little niece have changed him and that he wants to become a better person (“You only care if you literally have skin in the game” is Delroy’s assessment not just of Michael but of the world at large). “Make me understand!” Michael begs – a request that can be seen either as a sign of hope and progress, or as yet another manifestation of privilege. When Michael tries to make physical amends by beating up the neighbour, Delroy remarks too on his white saviourism.
Back and forth they go, in tiny bursts and towering speeches, shifting endlessly and seamlessly between jokes and meltdowns, enduring friendship and fragile bonds, tension and tenderness. All of these are given greater life and power by crisp, clever editing that knows just when to open up the claustrophobic flat with a raised blind on to a tableau beyond, or to shut it downso we might feel the pressure rise yet further. It is a profoundly impressive, deeply moving achievement and makes you think that England might be saved – might even be worth saving – yet.