With a second national lockdown looming, the National Theatre’s triumphant return is a bitter one, with their opening night also being their closing night. Though at least in this regard it has nothing to do with the quality of the production.
Death of England: Delroy, written by Roy Williams and Clint Dyer, is a sequel of sorts to the critically acclaimed Death of England, staged earlier this year at the National. Like its predecessor, the play is delivered as an extended monologue by its title character Delroy (Michael Balogun), a black working-class man, who was also a non-speaking character from the original play.
Throughout the monologue, Delroy explores the choices he has made throughout his life, outwardly reflecting on how these actions may have compromised his identity as a black man, not speaking out against the slights made by those around him in an effort to fit in. As we learn of his unwarranted and violent arrest whilst on his way to the hospital for the birth of his child, both the audience and Delroy can see his efforts to conform as ultimately pointless. After all people only see what they want to see.
Whilst the Black Lives Matter movement has been around for years, its visibility and vocality this year in particular has caused it to be front and centre in the dialogue of the nation. Delroy picks up on this prevalence and examines how his attitude towards it changed so dramatically with the spark of his brutal handling by the police. It also makes him re-examine the relationship he has with those around him, with his girlfriend, his mum, his best friend. The play does not seek to define or to resolve, it just explores, poses questions, constantly challenging the watcher to think, to feel.
Balogun’s performance is physically, emotionally, and vocally dexterous. Lifting and falling as the text makes split-second flips from one moment to the next. Delroy is a man with tremendous wit, and Balogun matches that wit with precision timing and well-rehearsed physicality which brings a wonderful dynamism to the otherwise empty stage. Staged in the round, in the newly restructured Olivier auditorium, the actor is constantly exposed, but uses this to find impetus and inspiration from every angle of the audience, his reactions, his emotion always visible, whether in his face, his voice or his body.
This one-man show incorporates some remarkably simple staging, designed by Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey and ULTZ, and is utilised wonderfully in the direction by Dyer. Whilst at first it seems like there are only two playing angles on a large raised walkway, the stage is in fact surrounded by steps, pillars and two confined spaces walled by Perspex. These additional spaces, along with precise lighting, designed by Jackie Shemesh, allow for different moments of the monologue to be segmented around the space. This makes it far easier to follow the story and allows for more dynamic movement within the scenes.
Death of England: Delroy is a wonderfully crafted piece of theatre, and its overall structure and presentation is completely in-keeping with the standard one would expect from The National Theatre. I must admit, however, that considering the historic audience profile of the National Theatre (white middle class), I highly doubt that the subject matter is one that most patrons would welcome, especially as hard hitting as this one is; a risk that must be commended in the current climate. In doing so they increase representation, making it a The National Theatre of a modern England, pushing the status quo out the window and forcing people to look at the things that don’t affect them individually, to make them feel uncomfortable and reflect on how they too play a part in the overall landscape of our nation. Theatre is there to challenge audiences, and after watching this play and walking out onto the crisp, cold streets of London, the world certainly does look starkly different to me than it did before.
All performances of Death of England: Delroy have been cancelled from 5th October due to the National Lockdown. The performance was recorded with the intent to broadcast and may be available in future. For more information, visit National Theatre online.