The Lehman Trilogy’s Michael Balogun on his extraordinary journey from prison to starring in the West End
For anyone questioning the power of art to change lives, look no further than Michael Balogun. He was at his lowest ebb, sitting in a prison cell, when he had an “epiphany” – he should try to become an actor. Fast forward a decade or so, and with a series of performances at the National Theatre under his belt, next week he steps out onto the stage of the Gillian Lynne Theatre to make his West End debut.
“When I got into acting, I didn’t really look too far ahead, but I remember walking through the West End thinking, ‘I wonder if I’ll ever be on one of those stages.’ And now it’s happening. It’s a dream come true,” he tells me when we meet in a rehearsal space in Canning Town. He tries not to think too hard about how far he has come though: “I learnt it doesn’t help me as an actor to bask in the magnitude of what I’m doing sometimes.”
Balogun is one of three actors – alongside Hadley Fraser and Nigel Lindsay – in the new cast of The Lehman Trilogy, the National’s acclaimed adaptation of Stefano Massini’s play, which has travelled from London to Broadway and back.
Directed by Sam Mendes, this vast tale journeys from the three original Lehman brothers’ arrival from Germany to the US in the mid-19th century, through several generations of a dynasty (each actor plays multiple parts) that culminates in the collapse of Lehman Brothers investment bank during the financial crisis of 2008.
Balogun had never seen the play, “I heard it was about banking and I thought, ‘I don’t know about that.’” But reading it ahead of his audition, he realised it was an immigrant story, about family, the American dream, a tale of rags-to-riches. “I have thought about that whole rags-to-riches story, about having a dream and wanting to accomplish it. When I decided I wanted to be an actor I was in a cell and I didn’t know how it was going to manifest and happen.”
What spoke to him particularly was theme of what children take from their parents and carry with them in their life, willingly or not – especially when they’re young. But also of people clawing their way up from poverty.
“My background is probably below working class,” he says. “My mum went to prison when I was young, and I went to prison when I was a little bit older. There are things that resonate there.” He also identifies with character Emanuel, one of the first generation of American Lehmans, described as a “boy who grew up quickly”.
Balogun can relate. He grew up in Kennington and always enjoyed performance, whether appearing in nativity plays or singing solos in the choir. But his home life wasn’t easy. His father wasn’t around and then his mother was sent to prison for dealing drugs while he was still in primary school.
“My mum went away [to prison] when I was in a nativity play. She was meant to come and watch, and that day was the day she went away. Going back to that point, how moments can affect your journey, I feel like that knocked my confidence a lot. I started going down the wrong road from there.”
As so many young men do, Balogun started hanging around with “the wrong crowd” looking for a sense of family and belonging. He went from stealing to robbing, and then onto dealing drugs, which landed him a three year-sentence when he was “17 or 18. Anyone that’s been to prison knows the first time is the scariest thing that’s happened in your life. You go onto the wing, it’s metal doors – people are screaming and shouting. It’s intimidating.”
There was a second spell inside, then a third, when he was involved in an incident with a gun, and he received a nine-year sentence. “It was rough but I was doing stupid things. I wasn’t being myself.”
It was then he set about turning his lifea round. He had dreams of becoming a chef, training in the Clink, the charity-run restaurants inside prisons staffed by prisoners. When he became eligible for day release he started working at the drama school RADA but was too slow at chopping vegetables to work in the kitchen, and was put on the bar instead.
“Being around those students and those creatives and them not judging me,” he says. “It was one of the first places I felt I could truly be my authentic self and that’s what started the ball rolling in me thinking I could be an actor.
“I had belief as a child. Then when things started going sour, with my mum going away, me going away, I lost faith in myself. It’s something I found working at RADA. There comes a point where you are the master of your destiny and you can’t keep complaining about the past. I had a moment like that when I was away and that led me to this moment right now.”
But self-sabotage was not far away. He was caught smuggling a mobile phone into the prison and his work at RADA ended. It sent him spiralling. “I was at rock bottom. I don’t think I’ve ever been that low” he says. “I was contemplating suicide. I sat down in silence, let myself go in meditation. I’m not religious but I’m quite spiritual. I can’t explain how the idea came to me. It’s like it came from outside of me, through me: acting.”
After getting out, he applied for RADA doing the St Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V – the “band of brothers” one – like he was talking to fellow inmates. “I thought, ‘F*** it.’ He got in.
Balogun has a strong connection with Shakespeare: “I could see these characters in my life, prior to acting.” He read King Lear repeatedly in prison and is a big fan of Macbeth, which he first read with Crisis, the homeless charity, shortly after he came out of prison.
“I remember thinking, ‘I could name a hundred Macbeths. People who are so ambitious and will do whatever to get what they want. I’ve been around those people, real Macbeths.”
After roles touring the play People’s Places and Things with his RADA classmate Aimee Lou Wood (now known for her role in Sex Education) and playing a policeman on Casualty – “I was thinking, ‘Do these guys know I was a career criminal at one point?’” he landed a small role in Macbeth at the National Theatre directed by Rufus Norris. Norris calls him "one of our most vivid, thrilling actors”, and says it was clear from that time “he was bound for great things” (Balogun later played Macduff in a touring production, but he wants the lead. “Yeah,” he laughs, “I really want to play Maccers at some point.”).
His big breakthrough was another National production. He was understudy to Olivier award winner Giles Terera for the one-man play Death of England: Delroy, written by Roy Williams and Clint Dyer, about a Brexit-voting black British man and his changing politicisation after being racially profiled by the police. Two weeks before opening, Terera contracted appendicitis and Balogun was thrust into the spotlight.
“The play starts off with Delroy in his flat in lockdown, and before that I was in my flat in lockdown wondering what I was going to do, because I was applying for jobs and nothing was coming through because of my criminal record… At the time there was a campaign about a woman in a ballet dress [the infamous government advert “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber (She just doesn’t know it yet)” which caused outrage in the arts] I was thinking, ‘Guys I’ve already retrained as an actor. What do I do now?’ So it is testament to the powers that be, or whatever, that I got to perform a one-man show on the Olivier stage.”
“There were so many elements from that play you could have taken out of my life,” Balogun says, “It was the racism but also that experience of being a black British person but always feeling like you’ve been othered even though you’ve lived here all your life.”
It was the NT’s first show back since the initial lockdown, and a blistering role on a vast, empty stage. There was, he says, “no place to hide”. They rehearsed day and night and the National put him in a flat on the South Bank so he wouldn’t catch Covid on the tube. In the event, after weeks of previews, the country was put back into lockdown on press night, so the show closed the night it officially opened. But what an impression Balogun left, with the Standard’s Nick Curtis saying he “performed with firecracker energy and a blend of charm and rage”.
If his casting in The Lehman Trilogy is proof of how far the arts can take someone, he fears for the next generation, with arts being taken off the school curriculum and funding for the arts in decline. “These politicians are so removed from what’s happening on ground level. Any child and parent knows how important art is and being creative is. To let yourself go and enjoy yourself. Whatever art form it is.
“When you hear of all these theatres losing money; of things being cut, you just understand this government don’t value that. But they’re the people you’ll see in the front row enjoying a play.”
That’s why Balogun works with companies like Kestrel Theatre Company, which uses the arts in prison to change lives. “I feel like I have to, because a lot of the time, with this government, people in those institutions are forgotten about. People lock them up and throw away the key. Yes they’ve done bad things but everyone deserves a second chance, and if anyone can learn from my story, then win-win.”
As he gets older, he says, he sees people from his past and “as much as I can get into that headspace, I’m just not like that any more. The people who really care about me are really happy about the change I’ve made. I’ve got lots of friends from my journey as an actor and I still have some friends from before. I gained a lot from those years when my mum went away, and when I was on the streets. I gained a lot of life experience that helps me with my job.”
His mum, who is now a bus driver, is delighted for him. “The other day her bus had The Lehman Trilogy poster on it, and she was really excited,” he says. “It’s nice that my mum can be proud of me.”
The Lehman Trilogy runs at the Gillian Lynne Theatre from February 8 to May 20. Buy tickets here