“We are always thinking about right now,” says Clint Dyer, deputy artistic director of the National Theatre, “but we have stayed current because we have looked forward.”
He is talking about the extraordinary Death of England series – three plays at the National and one film – which examine race and class in contemporary Britain, written together with acclaimed playwright Roy Williams.
Each script seemed to arrive at just the right moment of our recent, tumultuous history, and that includes the final instalment, which opens this month.
I meet Williams and Dyer, both 55, a day after the 60th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Death of England expresses the belief of its two black, British, working-class creators that racism has been largely covered up rather than fully dealt with in the UK in their lifetime. And that the inevitable inclination of history towards racial justice and equality that King foresaw has become, as Williams says, “very, very slow”.
The original Death of England, staged in the NT’s Dorfman studio space in 2020, had Rafe Spall as white working-class Michael, using the eulogy for his racist father to go on a drink and drug-fuelled rant. “He’s laying into everyone but he’s really talking about himself and the state of England,” says Williams. “The first preview of that play was the night we left the EU [31 Jan 2020]. Although the metaphor was the World Cup we had just played in, where England were absolute rubbish.”
The second installment, subtitled ‘Delroy’, saw Michael’s eponymous black best friend (played by Michael Balogun, after Giles Terera became indisposed) detained by police on the way to the birth of his first child with his girlfriend, Michael’s sister Carly. Delroy had voted for Brexit. “Partly that was just us being naughty and confounding people’s expectations of a young black man,” says Williams. “But lots of black people did vote for it.”
“Anger at how he has been treated by Britain means there is an ability to disengage with what might be better for Britain,” says Dyer of Delroy. “There is a working-class angle on [Brexit], both black and white, which is almost akin to self-punishment.” The play closed the day after it opened in the National’s vast Olivier as the second UK lockdown came into effect. It chimed with the surging Black Lives Matter movement and knotted together disparate feelings of rage and powerlessness.
Williams and Dyer had already planned a third chapter featuring both Carly and Delroy’s mother Denise. But under lockdown they quickly wrote the Death of England film Face to Face, which saw Michael and Delroy (now played by Neil Maskell and Terera) fight bigots together and conceive the dream of opening a shop, where Carly would continue her father’s flower business and Denise could have a cafe.
Now finally, amid the cost-of-living crisis and ever more bitter social division, we will hear from the women – played by Holby City’s Jo Martin and Hayley Squires from I, Daniel Blake – as the series’ last segment, ‘Closing Time’ reaches the Dorfman. “It’s about how these two women grow together, considering the difference in generation and racial identity, and how they learn to work with each other as well as having the familial link of the granddaughter,” says Dyer. “You will have noticed all of [the stories] have an element of grieving in them. This is the women grieving the loss of the shop.”
The timeliness of each tale seems even more extraordinary when Dyer and Williams reveal they originally workshopped an entire play with all the characters at the National’s studio before extracting Michael from the milieu. Jo Martin was part of the workshop cast so she is the “original, original, original Denise”. The new script and any further details about the story are under wraps, but both men talk volubly about the themes of the whole series, which remain sadly timeless.
Dyer and Williams have known each other for over 30 years and share similar backgrounds as the sons of Caribbean immigrants: Williams was brought up by his nurse mother in Notting Dale, Dyer in east London with a mother who was also a nurse, and a father who worked at Ford.
Both started out as actors (Dyer still acts) and both got their start in the Nineties thanks to Philip Hedley at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. “He was one of the few artistic directors who embraced the idea of black people having power and directing their own work,” says Dyer.
“I’ve got him to thank too,” says Williams. “I sent him my first play [The No-Boys Cricket Club] in a brown envelope. Three months later I was talking to him and he put it on the following summer.” When both men left school in the Eighties, there were several small-scale black theatre companies, but less integration in the mainstream: on a school visit to the National, Dyer wrote the words “shame on you” on a proudly-displayed portrait of Laurence Olivier in blackface as Othello. Though theatres slowly assimilated more diverse casts and more non-white writers, those companies died out and, Williams says, “the work got squeezed”.
The pioneering companies of the Eighties were a riposte to the naked racism of much of Britain in the Seventies. The National Front was at its most powerful, sitcoms regularly featured racist stereotypes and the three most prominent black players in British football – Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendan Batson – were subject to horrific abuse. “They were nicknamed the Three Degrees [after the all-black, all-female vocal group of the time],” says Williams. “It was acceptable for people to make monkey noises from the stands and throw bananas at them.” He and Dyer are soon to start work on a film script about the three players.
Both writers were hugely into football but were alienated by the hatred. Williams’s mother told him he’d have to work twice as hard as a white man to succeed. This accounts for the workaholism that’s led to him producing almost 30 scripts for theatre, TV and radio in as many years, including standouts like Sucker Punch, Fallout and Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads. “In Roy’s work, you can smell and feel and see the Black Lives movement from the very early plays,” says Dyer.
As a member of the Alliance of Black Media Professionals in the Nineties, Dyer tried to talk to organisations like the BBC, the Arts Council and Channel 4 about increasing diversity. “We were literally laughed out of the buildings,” he says. When he wrote scripts addressing racism, he was told by white theatre managers it simply didn’t exist any more in Britain. Hedley hired him to direct the British Ska musical The Big Life in 2004 and it transferred to the West End – he was the first black director of a musical in the West End – but he couldn’t get another job off the back of it. “It led to depression and all sorts of things,” he says.
Some things have improved. In 2020, white director Dominic Cooke wisely made way at the helm of the Bob Marley compilation musical Get Up Stand Up for Dyer. “There is a level of conversation in the industry that we can have with people that don’t look like me that didn’t exist before,” Dyer adds. In 2021, he was appointed deputy artistic director to Rufus Norris at the National, which would have been “unthinkable even five years ago”. He directed a stunning Othello there starring Terera last year and has been part of plans to increase diversity and representation, on stage and off.
He has no plans to apply for the top job when Norris stands down in 2025, as his commitment to direct a musical about Mohammed Ali in America next year, plus the footballer film, will “take me out of the building for a while”. But he suggests the nation is ready for someone who isn’t a white man to run the south bank institution. The favoured frontrunner for the job is probably Indhu Rubasingham, who is due to stand down soon at the Kiln.
Twenty years after he wrote Fallout, about Damilola Taylor’s murder, Williams has a play, The Architect, in the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival marking the 30th anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s death.
He’s also looking for a theatre for his musical To The Streets, about the 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott, which overturned a colour bar at the city’s bus company and arguably led to the passing of the Race Relations Act that outlawed discrimination. Prejudice obviously didn’t suddenly vanish in those intervening years and now feels newly legitimised by Brexit, populist culture wars, and the badlands of social media.
“When I look at some things on Twitter I find it very hard to believe things have changed,” says Williams. “Speaking generally, I think we got very good at papering over the cracks: putting plaster on the window rather than treating the wood. But also generally, I think there are more warriors who look like me who are fighting their own corner, fighting back.”
Death of England: Closing Time, opens on September 27, nationaltheatre.org.uk