Before lockdown 2.0, Lindsey Huebner caught up with Roy Williams to discuss Death of England: Delroy, the concept of “Britishness”, and the potential for more plays in the Death of England series.
Writing features in lockdown is certainly reflective of this moment in all its unpredictability and my interview with playwright Roy Williams is no exception. No sooner had we finished our conversation than a snap lockdown 2.0 was announced, once again slamming shut the doors of those gutsy and/or favourably-funded theatres who had dared to open after closures of 6+ months.
Williams and I connect whilst his newest piece Death of England: Delroy is in previews on the National Theatre’s Olivier stage, both of us blissfully ignorant at the time that this show’s triumphant opening night will also be its last for the foreseeable future. Fortunately for all of us who missed this narrow window, the National has announced that they will stream a free one-off performance on 27 November with the hopes that the production will complete its live run in Spring 2021, giving us a hopeful light at the end of the drawn-out lockdown tunnel.
The ominously named Death of England starring Rafe Spall exploded onto the National’s Dorfman stage at the beginning of this year, and its sequel Death of England: Delroy exists within its orbit, following Delroy (Michael Balogun), Michael’s (Spall) best friend in the aftermath of the funeral dramatised in the first play. Both of these pieces are a result of the collaboration between Williams and director and co-writer Clint Dyer. The working relationship between Williams and Dyer is strong and longstanding. Talking of Dyer, Williams says, “We’ve been friends for quite a while, but it wasn’t until about 8 years ago when we formally started working together. I had a play at Stratford East and he came on as a director and we found we work very, very well together.”
Williams’s and Dyer’s Death of England has gone through a few iterations over the years: initially a short film born of a commission by The Guardian and The Royal Court based upon the sections of the Saturday newspaper, then workshopped and refined for the stage. In regards to its early development at the National Theatre Studio, Williams says, “We got a bunch of actors together playing Michael’s family, friends, his girlfriend… It was like a shout fest. We just got them to shout at each other, improvising scenes. We filmed everything.” This raw material provided the launch point for the original play and formed the scaffolding for Delroy (and any future iterations to come).
In reviewing the workshop footage, Williams says, “We realised there’s so much more material there — we could write at least two more plays.” Through this process, it became clear to Williams and Dyer that the character of Delroy had a pressing story worth telling, and talks of the sequel began. Williams says, “With Delroy, what lit the fuse in terms of me wanting to write this play was something Michael says to him in the first play: ‘You may look like us, you may sound like us, but you will never be one of us.’ That haunts Delroy”. For Williams, this sentiment is all too familiar: “It’s very similar for me growing up as a Black man in this country. There have been moments in my life where I’ve been made to feel like that — by Black people as well as white. In certain circumstances, it’s scarred me; it’s wounded me, but it’s also driven me forward as well.”
Prompted by the harsh words of a supposed friend and loved-one, Williams says Delroy is forced to ask himself questions like, “Who am I as a Black man? Am I really British? Or if I am, what the hell does ‘British’ mean?” But these questions are by no means limited to the fictional Delroy. Williams admits, “Even at my age, I’m still thinking, ‘How British am I? What is being British?’ I find that really intriguing. What is England? Is it fish and chips? I sense it’s something different.”
The enormity of such questions on locating personal identity within a nation feels pertinent in the era of populist demagogues, Brexit and especially in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Of this, Williams says, “It feels like we’re expected to think, ‘Oh, that’s in America. That’s not going on here.’ There’s only one slight difference between here and America and that’s the fact that the police over here don’t carry guns. If they did, I think we’d be talking a whole different ballgame. When I hear about things happening in America, I feel it’s so relatable to stuff that has happened or is happening over here.” We should certainly not be letting ourselves off any proverbial hooks and certainly not self-congratulating. Williams reflects back to when he first heard about George Floyd, saying, “I thought, yes, I’m shocked, I’m disgusted, but what’s even more alarming is I’m just kind of used to it. It’s happened all before.” Whether or not the international outcry results in lasting change remains to be seen.
There is little doubt that fear and its many guises permeate so many aspects of our personal and societal existences; however, Williams acknowledges, “It’s okay to be frightened. However, from the great play Angels in America, my favourite play: ‘The world only spins forward.’ I know we’re frightened of change and everything, but change is inevitable. It’s not even that it has to change or that it needs to change- it will bloody change. It just will. It will move forward whether we like it or not.”
As we wind down the interview, I am simultaneously daunted by the challenges before us personally and societally as well as inspired that there are creatives with such forensic minds and empathetic hearts as Roy Williams. He concludes the interview with a plea to all working class artists, saying, “You’re needed. Just keep doing what you’re doing because we need you.” Now more than ever.
Death of England: Delroy streams for free on the National Theatre Youtube channel on the 27th November, before returning to the stage in Spring 2021. More information about it can be found on the National Theatre website.