For anyone doubting the power of art to change lives, look no further than Michael Balogun. He was at his lowest point, sitting in a prison cell, when he had an “epiphany” – he should try to become an actor. Fast-forward a decade or so, and with a string of appearances at the National Theater to his name, he’ll be stepping onto the stage at the Gillian Lynne Theater next week to make his West End debut.
“When I started acting I didn’t really look very far ahead, but I remember walking around the West End and thinking, ‘I wonder if I’ll ever be on one of those stages.’ And now it’s happening. It’s a dream come true,” he tells me when we meet in a rehearsal room in Canning Town. However, he tries not to think too much about how far he’s come: “I’ve learned that it’s me as an actor doesn’t help to sometimes bask in the magnitude of what I do.”
Balogun is one of three actors – alongside Hadley Fraser and Nigel Lindsay – in the new cast of The Lehman Trilogy, the Nationally acclaimed adaptation of Stefano Massini’s play, which has traveled from London to Broadway and back.
Directed by Sam Mendes, this expansive story travels from the arrival of the three original Lehman brothers from Germany to the US in the mid-19th century.e century, through several generations of a dynasty (each actor playing multiple roles) that culminated in the collapse of the investment bank Lehman Brothers during the 2008 financial crisis.
Balogun had never seen the piece: “I heard it was about banking and I thought, ‘I don’t know.'” But when he read it for his audition, he realized it was an immigrant story, about family, the American dream, a rags to riches story. “I’ve been thinking about that whole rags-to-riches thing, about having a dream and wanting to achieve it. When I decided I wanted to be an actor, I was in a cell and I didn’t know how it would manifest and happen.
What particularly appealed to him was the theme of what children take from their parents and carry with them into their lives, voluntarily or not – especially when they are young. But also of people who are scribbling their way out of poverty.
“My background is probably among the 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 resonate there. He also identifies with character Emanuel, one of the first generation of American Lehmans, described as a “boy who grew up fast”.
Balogun can tell. Growing up in Kennington, he always enjoyed performing, whether performing in nativity plays or singing solos in the choir. But his life at home was not easy. His father was not there and then his mother was sent to prison for dealing drugs while he was still in elementary school.
‘My mother has left [to prison] when I played in a nativity scene. She was meant to come and see, and that day was the day she left. Coming back to that point, how moments can affect your journey, I feel like that has seriously affected my confidence. From there I started going down the wrong path.”
Like so many young men do, Balogun started hanging out with “the wrong crowd” looking for a sense of family and belonging. He went from stealing to robbing and then to dealing drugs, earning him a three-year prison sentence when he was “17 or 18.” Anyone who has been in prison knows that the first time is the scariest thing that has happened to you in your life. You go up the wing, it’s metal doors – people scream and scream. It’s intimidating.”
There was a second spell in, then a third, when he was involved in a gun incident, and he received a nine-year prison sentence. “It was tough, but I did stupid things. I wasn’t myself.”
It was then that he began to turn his life around. He dreamed of becoming a chef and training in the Clink, the prison charity restaurants run by inmates. When he was eligible for day release, he began working at the RADA drama school, but was too slow at chopping vegetables to work in the kitchen and was put on the bar instead.
“Being around those students and those creatives and they don’t judge me,” he says. “It was one of the first places where I felt I could really be my authentic self and that’s what got the ball rolling in me thinking I could be an actor.
“As a child I had faith. When things started to turn sour, with my mother leaving, me leaving, I lost faith in myself. It’s something I found at RADA. There comes a point where you are in control of your destiny and you cannot keep complaining about the past. I had such a moment when I was gone and it led me to this moment now.
But self-sabotage was not far off. He was caught smuggling a mobile phone into prison and his work at RADA ended. It sent him into a spiral. “I was at a low point. I don’t think I’ve ever been this low,” he says. “I contemplated suicide. I sat down in silence, let myself go in meditation. I am not religious, but I am very spiritual. I can’t explain how I got the idea. It’s like it came from outside me, through me: acting.”
After he was released, he applied to RADA to pretend Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech – the “band of brothers” – to speak to fellow inmates. “I thought, ‘F*** it.’ He got in.
Balogun has a strong connection to Shakespeare: “I could see these characters in my life, before I acted.” He read King Lear repeatedly 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 a hundred Macbeths. People who are so ambitious and will do anything to get what they want. I’ve been around those people, real Macbeths.’
After starring in the play People’s Places and Things with his RADA classmate Aimee Lou Wood (now known for her role in Sex Education) and playing a cop in Casualty – “I thought, ‘Do these guys know I was a career criminal once? period?’” he landed a small part in Macbeth at the National Theatre, directed by Rufus Norris. Norris calls him “one of our most vibrant, exciting actors,” and says it was clear from then on “he was headed for great things” (Balogun later played Macduff in a touring production, but he wants the lead. “Yeah ,” he laughs, “I want to play Maccers someday.”).
His big break was another National production. He was an understudy to Olivier Prize winner Giles Terera for the one-man play Death of England: Delroy, written by Roy Williams and Clint Dyer, about a Brexit-voting black British man and his changing politicization after being racially profiled by police. Two weeks before the opening, Terera came down with appendicitis and Balogun came under the spotlight.
“The play starts with Delroy in his locked flat, and before that I was in my locked flat wondering what I was going to do because I was applying for jobs and nothing came through because of my criminal record… At the 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 thought, ‘Guys, I’ve already retrained to be an actor. What should I do now?’ So it’s a testament to reign, or whatever, that I got to put on a one-man show on the Olivier stage.
“There were so many elements from that piece that you could have taken out of my life,” says Balogun. lived here all your life.”
It was the NT’s first show since the first lockdown, and a blistering role on a huge, empty stage. There was, he says, “no place to hide”. They rehearsed day and night and the National put him in a flat on the South Bank so he wouldn’t get Covid on the tube. In the event, after weeks of previews, the country was put back into lockdown on press night, so the show closed on the night it officially opened. But what an impression Balogun left, with the Standard’s Nick Curtis saying he “performed with firework energy and a mix of charm and fury”.
If his role in The Lehman Trilogy is proof of how far art can take one, he fears for the next generation, as art is being removed from the school curriculum and funding for art is dwindling. “These politicians are so far removed from what is happening on the ground floor. Every child and parent knows the importance of art and being creative. To let yourself go and enjoy. Whatever art form it is.
“When you hear that all these theaters are losing money; from things that are cut, you just understand that this government doesn’t care about that. But those are the people you see in the front row enjoying a play.”
That’s why Balogun works with companies like Kestrel Theater Company, which uses art in prison to change lives. “I feel it has to be because with this government the people in those institutions are often forgotten. People lock them up and throw away the key. Yes, they did bad things, but everyone deserves a second chance, and if anyone can learn from my story, win-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 just not that way anymore. The people who really care about me are very happy with the change I’ve made. I have a lot of friends from my journey as an actor and I still have a few friends from back in the day. I learned a lot from those years when my mother left and when I was on the street. I have gained a lot of life experience that helps me in my work.”
His mother, who is now a bus driver, is very happy for him. “Recently her bus had a poster of The Lehman Trilogy and she was very excited,” he says. “It’s nice that my mother can be proud of me.”
The Lehman Trilogy runs from February 8 to May 20 at the Gillian Lynne Theater. Buy tickets here