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Meet the National Theatre’s secret weapon

Clint Dyer: meet the National Theatre’s secret weapon

The actor, writer & director tells Clive Davis about the end of his Death of England series, a new Muhammad Ali musical and why he won’t be taking over from Rufus Norris as artistic director of the NT

He is the outsider who has become an insider. When the actor, writer and director Clint Dyer was appointed deputy artistic director of the National Theatre in 2021, he became an unlikely recruit to the ranks of the Establishment. The son of Caribbean immigrants — his mother was a nurse, his father worked at the Ford factory in Dagenham, east London — the endlessly versatile actor-director was proof that, in an era when Old Etonians once again seemed to be hoovering up the plum jobs, there was still room for someone who is black and working class.

Not that it had been an easy journey. Two decades ago, Dyer thought he had broken through as a director when he took the helm of a musical, The Big Life, a Windrush version of Love’s Labour’s Lost, which had a run in the West End after opening at Theatre Royal Stratford East — the place where, as a teenager, he had attended Saturday workshops. But there was no flood of directorial offers thereafter. His mentor at Stratford East, Philip Hedley, has explicitly blamed racism for the fact that Dyer’s career failed to take flight back then.

Now we find Dyer, aged 54, sitting in an office at the National’s South Bank base ahead of rehearsals for Closing Time, the fourth and final instalment of the Death of England series of dramas co-written with the playwright Roy Williams (best known for his unflinching portrait of football fan culture in Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads).

It’s only three and a half years since the first of the Death of England plays had its premiere at the National’s Dorfman Theatre, but it could almost be a lifetime. Back in February 2020, when Rafe Spall gave an incendiary performance as Michael, a working-class Londoner trying to come to terms with the death of his father, an old-school racist, hardly anyone had given much thought to a little thing called Covid-19. By the time Dyer and Williams unveiled the second monologue in the series, Death of England: Delroy — a monologue delivered by Michael’s friend (played by Michael Balogun after Giles Terera dropped out due to illness) — things were very different. The press night — held in a reconfigured, socially distanced Olivier theatre — turned out to be the last night too: the National closed its doors as the country went into a second lockdown. When the third play in the series, Death of England: Face to Face, emerged a year later, it was in the form of a two-hander, filmed for television, in which Terera and Neil Maskell brought the two original characters together.

In Closing Time, the women finally get their chance to speak. At its centre are Delroy’s mother, Denise (played by Jo Martin), and Carly (Hayley Squires), the mother of his child, and also Michael’s sister. Face to Face had ended with the two men, killing time during lockdown, tentatively discussing plans to open a shop. Closing Time reflects on the aftermath. Dyer is reluctant to give away much of the storyline. Suffice it to say that the business venture doesn’t appear to have been a success.

If he is tight-lipped about what happens in the final work, Dyer is effusive about the creative process behind the series as a whole. What has turned into an ever-evolving saga began life in 2014 as a ten-minute micro-play jointly commissioned by the Royal Court and the Guardian. Given sport as a general theme, Williams and Dyer found inspiration in England’s poor showing at that year’s World Cup. (What a contrast to the National’s recent hit, James Graham’s Dear England, a love letter to the manager Gareth Southgate and the team that reached the final of the Euros in 2021.) From there came the idea — later one of the central episodes in the first instalment of Death of England — of Michael, an unassuming street florist, contemplating his place in the world as he spoke at the funeral for his father.

Then the process took an unexpected turn. Dyer and Williams embarked on what they had planned as a full-length play before reconsidering. “Part of the reason why we’ve been able to have so many episodes is how we started,” Dyer explains. “We started working on it through improvisation, and we created a whole world that would have centred around this character. But it was too large. It was losing some of its power. And then Roy had the idea to take all that we had and put it in a one-man play.

“So we went about writing that, and that’s when it first landed, and everybody wanted to do it. It was a really unusual process. In terms of doing more episodes, we found it quite natural because we had the world; we knew all about Delroy and all the stories. We had all of it there. So I’d say to Rufus [the National’s artistic director, Rufus Norris]: ‘Can we go again, but this time from here?’ And he’d say, ‘Yeah, go and do it.’ ”

It turns out that Closing Time was supposed to be the third instalment in the series. Dyer likens the unstructured approach of the whole enterprise to his early stint of working with the director Mike Leigh, godfather of improvisational drama. He breaks into a broad smile too when I mention the extraordinary ambience of the first play, which veered from the bleak to the comic. Dyer detects parallels with one of the all-time great comedians Richard Pryor, a performer who turned his own pain and trauma into laughter.

“That was something that Roy was really interested in,” Dyer says. “Richard Pryor could say the most serious, heartbreaking things that, if they were written down on paper, you would not laugh. But because of his character and his boldness and his desire to make honesty a weapon, it became funny. Pryor went through so much and was able to look back at it and say, ‘It was outrageous, but I’m still standing here. I’m going to tell the tale and what I’ve learnt from it.’”

Dyer brought another legend into focus in Get Up, Stand Up!, the musical based on the life of Bob Marley, which opened in the West End in October 2021. The music was as hypnotic as you’d expect, even if the script was disappointingly uneven. Next on the list is a musical about no less a subject than Muhammad Ali, due to open in the boxer’s home town of Louisville, Kentucky, in the autumn of 2024. Dyer will be both writer and director. The script is a work-in-progress. All in all, it sounds very much like Dyer’s dream project. He breaks into laughter: “It literally is. Muhammad Ali and music. Sport and music and theatre.”

What about the future of the National after Norris comes to the end of his contract in 2025? The Royal Shakespeare Company recently opted to appoint co-artistic directors in Daniel Evans and Tamara Harvey. Does Dyer think the same model could be tried on the South Bank? He’s non-committal.

“I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to do it,” he says. “It’s hard to articulate the type of control, experience, understanding, empathy, desire, forward thinking that you need to have. Then there’s the knowledge of the canon, of new playwriting and the ability to speak to donors, to government, to people like me. It’s a Herculean task. It’s all about having people who can offer the right skills. There could be seven people, but the wrong seven people.”

Dyer — who plays a soldier in a new indie film, Ferryman — promptly rules himself out of applying for the top job. “I’ve been an associate here since 2020,” he says. “And then to take on a job like that, that’s another ten years. It’s been flattering to have all the interest, but this was never part of my agenda, running the building. I don’t think I have the bandwidth for it. I always considered myself a creative.

“You have to have such a desire to do a job like this [artistic director]. It’s eight days a week. I have so much admiration for people that run buildings, because you literally have to give your whole life to it. The idea that you can never ever answer all the calls, all the email — it’s just too much.

“The other great thing that’s happened to me is the Muhammad Ali gig. It’s something I really, really feel passionate about. For someone at my stage of my career to be invited to go to America to write and direct a piece about someone I’ve got such admiration for is something I have to give my whole attention to.”

Written by Clive Davis, The Times
Monday September 04 2023, 12.01am 



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