Missing live theatre or The Death of England: Delroy


Seeing the first instalment of Death of England at the National Theatre by Clint Dyer and Roy Williams seems like a lifetime ago. But it was only February. There in the smaller Dorfman Theatre 450 of use crammed into the intimate space to watch a piece about identity, race and class in Britain.

Fast forward nine months of the pandemic, with lockdowns, excess deaths, Black Lives Matter, and "clapping for carers" we're back at the National. But this time around it's a black man who is talking about identity, race and class. And this time everyone is sitting apart wearing masks. 

Even watching in the socially distanced space of the Olivier, it did not diminish the power of what the show has to say. The Olivier has been reconfigured to a theatre in the round seating up to 500. But with signs throughout the theatre reminding everyone to keep their “social-racial-distance”, you were never far away from being reminded that all is not well either in the state of the theatre world or the wider one. 

When the director of the National Theatre comes up on stage before the show begins, you know that these have been trying times. The audience appreciation in seeing anything live was palpable. And soon people were cheering the front of house staff, the cast, the crew and the National. It felt both deserved and cathartic. 

Some of the measures used by the National hint at what a future return to live theatre will be.

Spontaneity may be the first to go. Everything is booked and agreed in advance. From the time you would arrive and the pre-theatre drinks you would enjoy and a what table you could consume them. And you were given a time when you were ushered into the theatre to take your seats. 

The future of live theatre might be a lot more waiting around, answering questions about your body temperature and making sure you have enough masks to get you through the duration of the show. Fortunately Death of England was my favourite length - ninety minutes straight through. Hopefully not too long to let your mind wander or catch covid. 

There seemed to be more seats vacant than expected as well. Either the show didn't sell, or the forthcoming lockdown put people off. Given the current infection rates across London, this felt like a bit of guilty relief. You could take pleasure in that extra reassurance you were a little bit further away from people while wondering if that made the bottom line even more precarious.

But the large space of the Oliver and the relatively modern facilities of The National won't translate to many other theatre spaces in London with their cramped quarters and poor ventilation. But masks, track and trace apps and extra distance of some sort look like they are going to be essential in the foreseeable future. 

But for now, the future is again on pause. The government lockdown means the rest of the run has been cancelled. But it was enough to remind you that streaming and podcasts are no substitute for what it feels like to be in the dark watching someone tell stories in front of you. And it's what makes life in London interesting. 

The experience of going to the theatre has been reawakened. Albeit briefly. But as both a great piece of drama and how you can safely return to the theatre, hopefully it will return again soon. 

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