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Reviewed by:
  • Death of England; Death of England: Delroy
  • Aleks Sierz (bio)
National Theatre, London, UK

Has this always been the age of anxiety? Like any other audience member, the Critic sets out for the National Theatre in London accompanied by a mild worry. Will the tube and bus deliver him in good time? Is he in the mood for this slice [End Page 46] of naturalism? Will he be able to do justice to the show within the slender word limit allocated to him? This time, before the pandemic closed all theatres in Britain, he arrives early, lingers outside the theatre and dreams for a moment of lighting up a cigarette, although he has long since given up smoking. He greets colleagues and participates in few desultory conversations about the topics of the day. The bell rings, and the first-night audience troops in. At the end, after the applause, in which the Critic joins in, he makes a rush for the exit, aided by the fact that he has an aisle seat and motivated by the deadline he has to meet. After briefly thinking of hailing a cab, he rejects the idea as too expensive. He rushes home, using public transport. On the tube, he reads the playtext, which he bought in the theatre bookshop, and tries to focus on his notes, which have been scribbled in the dark and are, in parts, barely legible, one sentence written on top of another. In his mind, he begins to frame the opening of his review. When he gets home, he starts his computer and gets to work.

It is February 6, 2020—a day when there are only three cases of Covid-19 in the UK. The Critic has been to see a new play about racism called Death of England, co-written by two black playwrights, Roy Williams and Clint Dyer. It’s a one-man show, in which Rafe Spall delivers a magnificent high-octane performance as 39-year-old Michael, a white working-class man whose life is a failure. The Critic decides to put this story into a state-of-the-nation context. He writes: “Is this an angry island? Although the British national character (if there is such a thing) has traditionally been one of reserve, repression, and restraint, more recently it has become increasing passionate and full of anger. More a clenched fist shaken in loud defiance, than a teacup raised in mild annoyance. Brexit hasn’t helped. It really hasn’t. In this new monologue, the fury of the white working-class man is articulated in rare blaze of insight—like a bulldog caught in oncoming headlights.”

In the play, Williams and Dyer include the familiar tropes of British xenophobia: Michael’s dad, a traditional white working-class man, reads the Sun, votes Tory— and Leave in the EU Referendum. His views on immigration are predictable, but his racism is matched and sometimes exceeded by the prejudices of his son. For both, national identity is English, white, and superglued to football, especially the World Cup. And all this despite the fact that Michael’s best friend at school is Delroy, whose parents come from the West Indies. When Michael’s dad dies suddenly during the England football team’s defeat in the 2018 World Cup, this is a catalyst for Michael to behave badly.

Williams and Dyer tell his story with enormous energy, the bruising speeches bursting out of humorous anecdotes about London life. At times the narrative is as tight as a strangler’s fingers around your windpipe; then the grip slackens as the words spew out like a drunk’s vomit, splashing everywhere. Williams and Dyer [End Page 47]

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Rafe Spall as Michael in Death of England. Photo: Helen Murray. Courtesy the National Theatre.

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Michael Balogun as Delroy in Death of England: Delroy. Photo: Normski. Courtesy the National Theatre.

[End Page 48]

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Sharon D. Clarke in Caroline, or Change. Photo: Alastair Muir.

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Les Waters and...


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pp. 46-51
Launched on MUSE
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