For anyone who questions the power of art to change lives, look no further than Michael Balogun. He was at least on time, sitting in a prison cell, when he had “promises” – he should try to be an actor. Fast forward a decade or so, and with a series of National Theater performances under his belt, next week he takes to the stage of the Gillian Lynne Theater to make his West End debut.
“When I started acting, I didn’t look too far ahead, but I remember walking through the West End thinking, ‘I wonder if I’ll ever be on one of those stages.’ And now it is happening. It’s a dream come true,” he tells me when we meet in a rehearsal space in Canning Town. He tries not to think too hard about how far he’s come, though: “I’ve learned that it doesn’t help me as an actor to walk on what I’m doing sometimes.”
Balogun is one of three actors – along with Hadley Fraser and Nigel Lindsay – in the new cast of The Lehman Trilogy, the National’s acclaimed adaptation of Stefano Massini’s play, which has traveled from London to Broadway and back.
Directed by Sam Mendes, this epic story follows the arrival of the three Lehman brothers from Germany to the US in the mid-19th century.th century, through several generations of a dynasty (each actor plays different parts) that ends with the collapse of the investment bank Lehman Brothers during the financial crisis of 2008.
Balogun had not seen the play, “I heard it was about banking and I thought, ‘I don’t know about that.'” But reading it before his audition, he realized it was an immigrant story, about family, the American dream, a story rags to riches. “I thought about that whole story, because of that wealth, having a dream and trying to make it happen. When I decided I wanted to be an actor I was in a cell and I didn’t know how it was going to play out and what would happen.”
What spoke to him in particular was the theme of what children take from their parents and carry with them in their lives, willingly or not – especially when they are young. But also of the people clawing their way up from poverty.
“My background is probably working class,” he says. “My mother went to prison when I was young, and I went to prison when I was a little older. There are things that matter.” He also identifies with the character Emanuel, one of the first generation of American Lehmans, known as “a boy who grew up fast”.
Balogun can relate. He grew up in Kennington and always enjoyed performing, whether it was appearing in nativity plays or singing solo in the choir. But his home life was not easy. His father was not around and then his mother was sent to prison for dealing drugs while he was still in primary school.
“My mother left [to prison] when I was in a nativity play. She meant to come to watch, and that day was the day she left. Going back to that point, how moments can affect your journey, I think that really affected my confidence. I started going down the wrong road from there.”
As so many young men do, Balogun started hanging around with the “wrong crowd” looking for a sense of family and belonging. He went from stealing to robbery, and then to selling drugs, which landed him a three-year sentence when he was “17 or 18. Anyone who has been in prison for the first time knows that the most terrifying thing happened in your life. You enter the wing, it’s metal doors – people are screaming and shouting. It’s intimidating.”
The second spell was in, then the third, when he was involved in an incident with a gun, and received a nine-year sentence. “It was rough but I was doing stupid things. I wasn’t myself.”
It was then that his life began to turn around. He had dreams of becoming a chef, training in the Clink, the charity-run restaurants in prisons staffed by inmates. When he became eligible for day release he started working at the RADA drama school but was too slow cutting vegetables to work in the kitchen, and was put on the bar instead.
“Being around those students and those creative people and not judging me,” he says. “It was one of the first places I felt I could really be myself and that’s what started the ball rolling for me thinking I could be an actor.
“I had faith as a child. Then, when things started to go sour, with my mother leaving, leaving me, I lost faith in myself. It’s something I found working at RADA. There comes a point where you are the master of your destiny and you cannot continue to complain about the past. I had a moment like that when I was away and that’s what brought me to this moment now.”
But self-sabotage was not far away. He was caught smuggling a mobile phone into the prison and his work at RADA ended. It made him spiral. “I was at rock bottom. I don’t think I’ve ever been that low” he says. “I was thinking about suicide. I sat down in silence, let myself go into meditation. I am not religious but I am quite spiritual. I can’t explain how the idea came to me. It seems to have come from outside of me, through me: acting.”
After he got out, he interrupted RADA giving Henry V’s St Crispin’s Day speech – “the band of brothers” – as he was talking to fellow residents. “I thought, ‘F*** it.’ He got in.
Balogun has a strong connection with Shakespeare: “I could see these characters in my life, before acting.” He read King Lear several times in prison and is a big fan of Macbeth, which he first read with Crisis, the homeless charity, shortly after he got out of prison.
“I remember thinking, ‘I could name the first Macbeth. People who are so ambitious and will do whatever they want to get. I was around those people, real Macbeths.”
After touring roles in People’s drama Places and Things with RADA colleague Aimee Lou Wood (now known for her role in Sex Education) and playing a police officer on Casualty – “I was thinking, ‘Does he know by these people that my career was a criminal at one point?” he got a small role in Macbeth at the National Theater directed by Rufus Norris. Norris calls him “one of our liveliest, most exciting actors”, and says it was clear from then on that “he was on to big things” (Balogun later played Macduff in a touring production, but he wants to get the lead. He said, “I want to play Maccers at some point.”).
His breakthrough was another National production. He was the original study of Olivier award winner Giles Terera for the one-man play Death of England: Delroy, written by Roy Williams and Clint Dyer, about a black British man who voted Brexit and his changing politics after being racially profiled by the police to get. Two weeks before opening, Terera contracted appendicitis and Balogun was thrust into the spotlight.
“The play starts with Delroy in his locked apartment, and before that I was in my locked apartment thinking what I was going to do, because I was applying for jobs and nothing was coming through because because of my criminal record… time there was a campaign about a woman in a ballet dress [the infamous government advert “Fatima’s next job could be in cyber (She just doesn’t know it yet)” which caused outrage in the arts] I was thinking, ‘Guys I’ve already retrained as an actor. What do I do now?’ So it’s a testament to the powers that be, or whatever, that I’ve got to perform a one-man show on the Olivier stage.”
“There were so many elements from that play that you could take from my life,” says Balogun, “It was the racism but also that experience of being a black British person but always feeling that you have been different even though you were different. I have lived here all your life.”
This was the NT’s first show back from the first lock, and a blistering role on a huge, empty stage. There was, he says, “nowhere to hide”. They practiced day and night and the National put him in an apartment on the South Bank so he wouldn’t get Covid on the tube. As it turned out, after weeks of previews, the country was put back into lockdown on press night, so the show closed the night it officially opened. But what an impression Balogun left, with the Standard’s Nick Curtis saying that “he performed with firecracker energy and a mixture of charm and fury”.
If his resolution in The Lehman Trilogy is proof of how far the arts can take someone, he fears for the next generation, with the arts being removed from the school curriculum and funding for the arts decreasing. “These politicians are so taken from what is happening on the ground. Any child and parent knows how important art and being creative is. To let yourself go and enjoy it. Whatever art form it is.
“When you hear all these theaters losing money; As for things being cut, you understand that this government does not value that. But it’s the people you’ll see in the front row enjoying a play.”
That’s why Balogun works with companies like Kestrel Theater Company, who use the arts in prison to change lives. “I feel that I have to, because often, with this government, people in those institutions are forgotten. People lock them up and throw away the key. Yes, they have done bad things but everyone deserves a second chance, and if anyone can learn from my story, they will win.”
As he gets older, he says, he sees people from his past and “as much as I can get into that headspace, I’m not like that anymore. The people who are very interested in me are very happy with the change I have made. I have many friends from my journey as an actor and I have some before. I got a lot from those years when my mother was gone, and when I was on the streets. I gained a lot of life experience that helps me with my job.”
His mother, who is now a bus driver, is happy for him. “The other day there was a poster of The Lehman Trilogy on her bus, and she was very excited,” he says. “It’s nice that my mother is proud of me.”
The Lehman Trilogy will run at the Gillian Lynne Theater from February 8 to May 20. Buy tickets here