Tweets have been popping up in the last day or so letting me know that National Theatre Live is now 13 years old. It only seems a very short time ago that the scheme launched via broadcasts in cinemas and sparking a whole debate as to whether it was truly theatre. During the pandemic the switch was made to being a free online streaming service; this ran for 16 weeks and kept us all enthralled during that first lockdown when going out to the theatre simply wasn’t an option. 15,000,000 views later it was clear that the National were onto a winner and in December 2020 they launched a full At Home service. This still manages to add a couple of goodies every month or so and a very healthy archive has now built up meaning that an occasional dip into their vaults is invariably a rewarding night in.
One production I was anxious to catch up with was Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’s solo play Death Of England. This was playing live as Covid 19 came to call in early 2020 and finished its run just days before theatres were closed. It proved to be the first of a trilogy about Michael, best friend Delroy and their respective families and milieus. Part 2, Death Of England: Delroy just about made it onto the stage before a new wave of the virus shut theatres. They play officially opened and closed on its first night; fortunately, it was filmed and then streamed. Avoiding a similar fate Part 3, Death Of England: Face To Face was performed in the Lyttleton Theatre but put straight onto video and broadcast on the Sky Arts channel. The trio of plays is a remarkable achievement and having seen and reviewed the other two (here and here) I was keen to complete the trilogy – even if it wasn’t quite in the right order.
As directed by Dyer, t’s a very strong opening piece which certainly helps to make greater sense of the other two as we are let into the life and some of the beliefs of Michael Fletcher a man adrift in a country which seems rudderless. Brexit has and is dividing the nation, white working class identity is (in his eyes) being threatened and eroded, his family is in mourning for the death of his fearsome yet hero-worshipped father. The national football team have let the side down – again! In a drug and alcohol fuelled rant Michael picks his world apart, abuses those he claims to love, picks fights and makes an extraordinary discovery about his departed parent. It’s a turbo-charged, exhausting yet thrilling 100 minutes which keeps up a frenetic pace embracing both the comic and the tragic. In the last twenty minutes or so the pace slows and the central character becomes more reflective. The play doesn’t so much conclude but then it is, in essence, only the first third of a much larger project.
The most thrilling aspect of the piece is the performance of Rafe Spall who not only embodies (brilliantly) Michael, but all the other characters in the narrative. Spall sets the play going at breakneck speed barely pausing for breath. He then moves up several gears from there, sweatily racing round the cruciform stage (designed by Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey and ULTZ), grabbing relevant and sometimes representative props (sister Carly comes in the shape of a stuffed toy bulldog) and bantering with the audience to draw them into the story. But its not all bluster and bravado as he gradually (unwittingly?) reveals the damaged man underneath. It is Michael’s one mission in life to gain his father’s approval and Spall shows that his doomed attempts to gain that accolade lie at the heart of the psychological problems which the character all to reluctantly faces.
While it may give you a deal of insight into how and why England has become such a divisive place to live (and this was written before the pandemic and all that pertained to that disaster) it is first and foremost a fascinating character study played by an actor at the top of his game. The central and strongest scene, set in a soulless crematorium when a coked up Michael addresses the congregation is lifted straight from a 2014 micro play. Even if you don’t wish to experience the whole piece and its subsequent sequels, it is still worth going back to this (it is still available here) if only to see what else you are missing. As a piece of raw acting it would be hard for it to be bettered and my guess is you will soon be scurrying off to catch up on all three full length pieces on the NT At Home platform.