The third story in Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’ Death of England series explores a whole new kind of confrontation and intimacy. After two plays (with Rafe Spall and Michael Balogun), the National Theatre moves the series over to the big screen with the filmed production, Face to Face – hot off the success of Romeo and Juliet earlier this year.
Worry not if you failed to catch either production, though – especially Death of England: Delroy, the run of which was cruelly cut short by COVID lockdowns in 2020. Michael (now played by Utopia‘s Neil Maskell) and Delroy (Hamilton‘s Giles Terera, who had to pull out of performing in Delroy due to emergency surgery) get us up to speed with the usual fourth wall break we’ve come to expect in the series. Now, it’s down the lens of the camera, and it feels a lot more personal and intense than the Dorfman or Oliver – an amalgamation of the previous two instalments, rather than another standalone. It’s both inviting and unsettling as we see a playful relationship under strain.
After having their respective narratives, Michael and Delroy now find themselves together in the latter’s apartment, this time sharing the story between them. We have moved on from the era of Black Lives Matter in Delroy, and Dyer and Williams have now turned their critical eye to lockdown, capturing the issues that the coronavirus pandemic evokes for the two men. First and foremost, following the events of Delroy – where Balogun’s character missed the birth of his daughter due to being arrested – he’s now been unable to see his child because of lockdown and social distancing. Thankfully for Delroy, his mate Michael has bent the rules a little bit and has brought his niece to the apartment. What follows is a rather turbulent afternoon- putting it lightly.
Their banterous friendship probably doesn’t help with the stress levels either, as they feel enclosed in the four walls. Maskell’s Michael, fresh from his cultural awakening after the death of his racist father, is a free-flowing overthinker, ready for Terera’s reserved and logical Delroy to tear him apart if his friend’s musings linger on the virtuous or dubious. The steady rise in pressure prompts powerful results from Terera later on in the 80-minute film, as the mental strain of a noisy upstairs neighbour and self-isolation sparks an uncontrollable monologue of rage, right up in our faces. The mental health impact of lockdowns on the Black community laid bare.
Michael has his moment of anger too, when the aforementioned ‘Trump’ neighbour says an unspeakable world about his niece and the individual finds himself on the floor. In a continuation of a theatrical theme, it’s often what isn’t said in the minuscule moments that are the most compelling and challenging. How is anger perceived differently between the two of them?
At last, the two protagonists are together, and what were previously individual lenses collide and combine. Individual perspectives still remain, and we still see them impersonate the other characters, but they have a physical presence now, not least when thuggish members of a local football club descend on the flat in a slow motion, gorgeously atmospheric fashion. The contrast to an otherwise unrelenting pace is stark and challenging.
There are smatterings of comedy in an otherwise serious story too, though these are heavily reliant on similes to the point where it’s noticeable. One standout favourite, however, comes when Michael visits his sister Carly and the baby, and the former’s sudden sheepishness around breastfeeding is compared to “Priti Patel at a Snoop Dogg gig”. Face to Face is certainly grounded in the present, both in its comedy and its narrative. And after writing in my notebook before the screening about why this third instalment had to be a film, I know the answer 1 hour and 20 minutes later.
Logistically, of course, there are elements where the magic of editing (with Sashi Kissoon as Director of Photography) comes in. Multiple Michaels and Delroys appear in scenes to distinguish between a character in situ, and their thought processes, in ways done differently to the monologues in the plays. Fight sequences would be incredibly difficult acted out against the person, too, but this all isn’t to say that theatrical influences aren’t visible here. The lighting is just as bright and energetic as the performances, the pacing just as slick as its predecessors. It’s just as inquisitive, too, but part of that comes down to how it’s viewed. Face to Face is something to be consumed as close to the screen as possible, with few degrees of separation, in keeping with its incisive nature. It’s my fault that I’m writing this as a one-off preview screening takes place in Curzon cinemas across the UK, but when it airs on Sky Arts later this month, get it on the biggest TV you can. This is not something for passive viewers.
A preview of Death of England: Face to Face will be screened at UK cinemas on 2 November, before being broadcast for free on Sky Arts on 25 November.
Photo: Steffan Hill.
Disclaimer: I was invited to attend and watch a preview screening of ‘Death of England: Face to Face’ in exchange for a review of the film. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated are honest and my own.