It’s funny how things work out sometimes. Reviews for the latest live production at the National Theatre, Moira Buffini’s Manor, have been almost universally condemnatory. The Times has called it “breathtakingly inept”, The Independent “a damp squib that never ignites”, and The Guardian “clumsy, crass and unconvincing”. And yet, on the same day, the NT also put out a filmed play which in terms of reviews could hardly be bettered. This is Death Of England: Face To Face which premiered on the Sky Arts channel following the success earlier this year of earlier stage/film combo Romeo And Juliet.
The Death Of England sequence by Clint Dyer and Roy Williams has had an interesting history. Starting life as a ten minute microplay film courtesy of the Royal Court (and currently available here) this was subsequently developed into a full monologue which received a blistering performance from Rafe Spall as Michael, a disaffected white male who berates everyone in a funeral eulogy that ends in a full on fight. This was followed by Death Of England: Delroy which developed the story through the character of Michael’s best friend as he faces arrest while trying to get to his partner’s (and Michael’s sister’s) bedside for the birth of their child. Due to be played by Giles Terera, his hospitalisation handed the role to understudy Michael Balogun who gave another dazzling display. However, this was for one night only as the second lockdown ensured that the production opened and closed on the same night; it was subsequently streamed to further acclaim. In this third (and final?) part, and as the title makes clear, the two men meet up in a piece that once again lands hard, pulls no punches and draws together previously introduced threads.
Delroy hasn’t seen his new daughter and can’t leave his flat because of lockdown and the fact that he is sporting an electronic tag; in order to build bridges Michael brings her round. The crying baby angers the man in the flat upstairs and the pair get into a confrontation which results in recriminations in the form of a gang invading the premises. Battle lines are drawn, and the duo have to confront not only this but themselves and what they stand for. This relatively simple set up is a peg to hang the real concerns of the piece upon. These include England’s increasing isolation from the rest of the world (the pandemic and Brexit), race relations, class privilege, personal identity and toxic masculinity. Although this has the potential to be little more than a list ticking exercise the writing is so sharp and focused that it never feels like that at all, and this is enhanced by crisp editing and two towering performances.
Michael is played this time round by Neil Maskell who shows that the character has developed through experience even if he still has some way to go to gain full understanding of the elements of his own make up and how his late father’s (a cameo from Phil Daniels) ideology has influenced his current position. It’s a nuanced performance which takes it way beyond cliché. Giles Terera (finally) gets to play Delroy and is even more impressive especially when he argues his way out of the impending violence. As well as being in the moment of the narrative action the pair also act as outside observers of their own and each other’s earlier behaviour. This filmic device adds yet another rich layer of meaning to the play.
I’m not entirely sure whether this piece would make complete sense to someone coming fresh to the “trilogy” which, with a cleverly neat twist at the end , would seem to have reached a natural conclusion. Part two certainly exists on film as does, at least, the truncated version of part one; it would be really useful if various parties could get things together to run the plays in sequence. Knowing the earlier elements would also help to make even more sense of the structure; monologues are prevalent once more, but this time combined with more naturalistic dialogue and filmic devices such as flashbacks. Indeed, what has been created is a true marriage of film and theatre, the latter connection reinforced by the recording taking place on the stage of the Lyttleton auditorium. This is the venue now housing Manor; I think it is pretty evident which production has made better use of its time. Strongly recommended.