Grief, guilt and white working-class ‘fury’: Death of England heads to London’s West End

<span>Clint Dyer and Roy Williams backstage. Death of England offers ‘an even-handed justice’, says Dyer, the deputy artistic director of the National Theatre.</span><span>Photograph: Dave Benett/Getty</span>
Clint Dyer and Roy Williams backstage. Death of England offers ‘an even-handed justice’, says Dyer, the deputy artistic director of the National Theatre.Photograph: Dave Benett/Getty

The co-creator of the Death of England series of plays has said the decade-long project has endured because, alongside difficult conversations about race and immigration, the plays have a sense of pride in being English.

Three of the plays are to be performed together at Soho Place in London this summer, taking a project that started life as a “microplay”, commissioned by the Guardian in collaboration with the Royal Court, to the West End.

The first Death of England stage production, developed from the microplay and put on at the National Theatre, focused on Michael Fletcher, played by Rafe Spall, who, in a “drug-fuelled, alcohol-sodden state, lets rip at the congregation” attending his father’s funeral.

The co-creator Roy Williams said it was not just a one-man play about a grieving son but also his “undirected fury as a white working-class man who doesn’t feel good enough about himself and blames others for his own inabilities”.

It was a rarity in British theatre: a play about working-class white guilt and grief written by two black British artists. Williams said the show “messed with some heads” because it questioned the limits of what a “black play” could be.

Clint Dyer, the deputy artistic director of the National Theatre, said he had not received a negative reaction from anyone who had seen the plays. “There’s a sense of being proud to be British and that pride means that I’m allowed to be critical. The whole piece talks about a love for each other,” he added.

When asked why he thought the series had endured and earned a transfer to the West End in July, Dyer said: “I hope it’s because people recognise themselves in the characters, and because people feel we’re not pointing the finger at anyone. It’s an even-handed justice.”

Sitting in the pews during the microplay was Michael’s best friend, whose story would be the focus of the second in the series, Death of England: Delroy.

Despite an opening scuppered by the Covid-19 pandemic and the various lockdowns, Michael Balogun created an evening of “brash and brilliant” theatre, where Delroy – a bailiff whose life had gone off the rails – was shown to be just as troubled as Michael.

The third production – Death of England: Face to Face – featured Michael and Delroy meeting each other on screen, while Death of England: Closing Time told the story from the point of view of Carly (Michael’s younger sister, the mother of Delroy’s child) and Delroy’s mother, Denise.

For the new production three of the four plays – Death of England: Michael; Death of England: Delroy; and Death of England: Closing Time – will be performed together. Thomas Coombes will play Michael; Paapa Essiedu will be Delroy; and Erin Doherty (Carly) and Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Denise) star in Death of England: Closing Time.

The series has been described as a “state of the nation” project that examines what Britain is in the era of Brexit, Covid and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Dyer said the plays showed “we’re still wrestling with our forefathers’ sense of what justice looked like. Britain thought it was the king of morality, there was always a sense of Britain and fair play, and what happens when you realise ‘Oh, we’re not that fair’. That can be an awakening for any generation or country.”

The plays are full of trauma and tension but also comedy. Dyer said despite the darkness hovering over much of Death of England there was an optimism at its heart.

Related: ‘We messed with some heads’: Roy Williams on tackling a torn nation in Death of England

“Inside the plays, what we’re always trying to reference is our ability to survive, carry on and move forward, however incremental it feels,” he said. “I do believe in this country I was born in. It’s a hell of a lot better than it was for everybody in the 60s and 70s, and this notion that it was better back then was an absolute lie.”

When asked about John Cleese’s recent comments defending the overtly racist comedies of the 1970s, such as Till Death Us Do Part, which featured the character Alf Garnett, who was played by Warren Mitchell and was known for his racist outbursts, Dyer said: “That’s because he wasn’t on the sharp end of those TV programmes.

“It was a laugh for them. They weren’t being called the names when they went to school. It becomes learned behaviour – young people go and do it themselves. Why would he understand that? I can’t see him reading [the American author] bell hooks, can you?”