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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. And we take the opportunity to explore other vintage productions preserved online. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

Death Of England:  Face To Face
National Theatre and Sky Arts   November 2021

This powerful play by Clint Dyer and Roy Williams began life at the Royal Court Theatre as a pair of short monologues then expanded into fuller versions staged by the National Theatre in 2020 in a run cut short by lockdown. The related but separate monologues have now been combined and reshaped into conversations for this screen adaptation.

It is remarkable in boldly taking on dark contemporary issues from racism to violence to warped concepts of masculinity to Covid and still, despite its dark title, finding its way to an optimistic ending.

It is also beautifully written, distilling the rhythms and vocabulary of male friendship into a rough and profane poetry. (Imagine, if you can, an East End David Mamet, and you might come close.)

Neil Maskell and Giles Terera play white Michael and black Delroy, friends since childhood brought even closer by Michael's sister and Delroy having a baby.

Breaking lockdown, Michael brings the infant girl to meet her father, and the emotionally charged moment inspires the men to face and express their feelings about things they thought unnecessary or perhaps unsafe to speak about before.

How strong is their friendship, they ask in not quite those words, and are generally reassured, though there are corners of the question they are willing to leave unexplored.

Delroy surprises Michael by being happy he doesn't have a son, but happy that the baby resembles Michael's racist father both for reasons that are as reasonable as they are unexpected. Michael discovers that his unconditional love for his niece exposes leftover bits of racism he sincerely thought he had long ago discarded.

A fight with a complaining neighbour leads to that man's gang attacking the two friends and a scene that is the play's dramatic and emotional climax.

At this point things may become a little less realistic than they've been, since Delroy manages to make the invaders stop and listen as he argues that violence is something they have all been mis-taught as the natural and proper manly response to any issues and they might actually not have any real reason to fight.

What we get here is an open assertion of the Classical Liberal tenet that people of good will can talk their way through conflict to the discovery that they have more in common than separating them.

And if you may have trouble quite believing that this argument would work in a room full of angry men wielding weapons, still it is dramatically satisfying and a pleasant fantasy.

In adapting it to the screen director Clint Dyer employs a number of devices that are effective and evocative, if occasionally a bit too pleased with their own cleverness.

Almost subliminally-brief flashes of cutaways or flashbacks give us glimpses of characters and events as they are referred to, and more developed flashbacks and narrated events repeatedly involve the two actors appearing in duplicate onscreen, one pair observing the other.

The closeness of the two men's friendship is demonstrated by their being able literally to speak for each other, as repeatedly one will recount a past conversation which is then played for us, but with the narrator's voice coming out of both mouths.

If there is a Death in this play, it is to those parts of being English whose departure we can well celebrate.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Death Of England 2021