The National Theatre in London is to welcome back audiences for the first time since March with a new play whose main character asks himself: “How British am I as a black man?”
Written by Roy Williams and Clint Dyer, it is a sequel to the pair’s monologue Death of England, about football and national identity, which was a hit earlier this year in the National’s Dorfman theatre. Death of England closed in March, days before the National shut its doors because of the coronavirus crisis. The new play, entitled Death of England: Delroy, is another monologue and will be directed by Dyer and staged for a socially distanced audience in the larger Olivier theatre. Dyer and Williams will become the first black British dramatists to have a full-scale production of their play in the Olivier. It will star Giles Terera, who won an Olivier award for playing Aaron Burr in the musical Hamilton in London.
The new play, which the National’s artistic director Rufus Norris calls explosive and timely, has been workshopped this week at the South Bank venue. It will open in late October, now that socially distanced indoor performances have been permitted (stage four of culture secretary Oliver Dowden’s roadmap for reopening venues).
Delroy is referred to in Death of England as the best friend of a white working-class man, Michael (played by Rafe Spall). Michael tells Delroy: “You may act like us and talk like us, but you will never be one of us.” Williams said that he had “been made to feel like that at various instances in my life”, as had Dyer. “It scarred me to a certain degree,” added Williams. “I use ways to channel that and become the person I am – and Clint likewise.”
Michael’s comments are “ringing in Delroy’s ears” at the start of the new monologue, which has a similar mix of rage and humour to its predecessor and is set in lockdown London in 2020. “Delroy’s asking himself: ‘How British am I as a black man?’ He’s done it by the book, he’s done everything right – he’s paid his taxes, he’s got a responsible job. He just feels: why is this happening to me?”
Death of England started out as a short drama commissioned by the Guardian and the Royal Court theatre for a series of filmed “microplays” in 2014. The project brought together journalists, playwrights and directors to respond to issues across key areas of the Guardian’s coverage such as politics, education and sport. Dyer and Williams met with sports writer Barney Ronay and decided to explore issues around race and national identity in football. Dyer, who directed the 2014 film, said at the time that being black and British gives him and Williams a perspective as “both outsider and insider”. This, says Williams, “is the war Delroy is having with himself – am I an insider or an outsider? Particularly dealing with Michael’s family. He has a relationship with Michael’s sister, Carly.”
Dyer and Williams had already begun working together on the new play before lockdown, and before the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests in response to the killing of George Floyd. “We were overridden by events as we were writing,” said Williams. The pair fine-tuned each other’s sections of the script over email in a collaboration that Williams called a joyful experience. “I’m glad we felt that way because it’s a serious thing we’re writing but you’ve got to have a bit of fun doing it.”
Williams said that he had felt a sense of relief that they were able to complete the run of Death of England before theatres around the UK were closed by the pandemic and that he had been “gutted” for those whose plays were in dress rehearsals in March but couldn’t open. He described passing the city’s empty theatres as heartbreaking. When venues do start to reopen, he warns that they cannot “carry on where we left off”. Commissioning processes must change, he said. “I really want theatre to accept the fact that there are new voices everywhere now. I want theatre to grab those voices and put them on.”
The National Theatre is midway through a redundancy consultation and is letting go its team of 400 casual staff. In an article for the Guardian on Friday, Norris writes that the organisation is applying for a loan and, if successful, will be making repayments on it for the next 20 years. Norris believes it is critical that theatres are able to continue to create work for audiences, commissioning writers and employing freelance artists, rather than leaving buildings to be mothballed during the pandemic. “For every theatre to remain inactive until the storm passes brings unconscionable risks of its own,” he writes. “We will lose our freelance workforce with its irreplaceable talent and skill, we will lose the progress we have made on diversity.” Amid what he describes as “the harsh and unavoidable pain of redundancies”, Norris says that “the decision to at least begin the process of bringing this work to the stage is an important one for the organisation”.