Mike Bartlett has compared his play Albion to Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. Others are saying that this is Britain's first serious Brexit play...
“Not a life of adventure but a life imagining what I’ve missed.”
Katherine Sanchez, talking about the inspiration for writing her novels
Note: This is my original review of Albion at the Almeida in 2017.
Mike Bartlett is our best playwright of the generation of writers in their thirties. The range of his work is remarkable. The first play of his I saw ten years ago was a drama about separation, My Child, part of Dominic Cooke’s choice of new writing at the Royal Court. There was the fascinating Artefacts about Iraq at The Bush. Then we saw Cock with an unforgettable partnership of Andrew Scott and Ben Whishaw about the tension in a sexual relationship. Earthquakes in London and 13 were about climate change and politics. His Chariots of Fire at Hampstead is at the top of my list to take my children to should it be revived. Last year Hampstead staged his literally ground breaking play Wild (2016) about Edward Snowden. In 2014 came the magnificent blank verse future history play King Charles III starring the late Tim Pigott Smith, televised this year (2017). To illustrate Bartlett’s prodigious talent and infinite variety he has penned and produced Dr Foster, the serial about a marital break down on BBC TV, that everyone is talking about.
Albion is a slower burn than some of Bartlett’s other plays. It is about Englishness and gardens and nostalgia and in that sense a desire, which may or may not be possible, to relive the past. The metaphors will be debated as the themes are many and complex.
Victoria Hamilton plays Audrey Walters, a successful entrepreneur and owner of a chain of upmarket design shops not unlike The White Company. She has moved her family from London to Albion, a mansion house in the Oxford countryside with a series of individual gardens designed after the First Word War by a returning soldier called Weatherbury. Her mission is to renew these gardens, restoring them to Weatherbury’s vision.
There are of course complications in trying to recreate Weatherbury’s gardens, not least climate change and the availability and cost of staff to maintain them but Audrey is used to getting her own way. Living with her is her affable and amenable second husband Paul (Nicholas Rowe) and her daughter, publishing intern, Zara (Charlotte Hope), who is the most resentful of the move to the countryside. Audrey’s son James has been killed in the army in Iraq but his girlfriend of three months Anna (Vinette Robinson) has attached herself to James’ family.
The locals who work in Albion are Matthew the gardener (rugged faced Christopher Fairbank) and his wife Cheryl (Margot Leicester) who cleans the house. Early on, Audrey will meet Krystyna (Edyta Budnik) of Polish origin who, stereotypically, is building her efficient house cleaning business at the expense of the locals. Gabriel (Luke Thallon) lives locally and is about to go to university, he writes poetry but is available for odd jobs like window cleaning and gardening and he will link up with Zara as they are of a similar age and interests. Audrey’s oldest friend Katherine Sanchez (Helen Schlesinger) comes to stay. Her celebrity as a well known novelist is recognised by Gabriel and Zara but Audrey, despite their friendship, is completely unaware of Katherine’s reputation.
The action centres on an oval lawn surrounded by flower beds which will be planted with red flowers in the course of the play. The audience have been reconfigured at the Almeida to sit around the oval, and the planting of the flowers by the cast has director Rupert Goold’s feel for involving and dramatic staging.
We are told that this garden was known as the red garden because it was about the fallen who Weatherbury had seen lose their life in the trenches of Flanders Field. Despite the novel staging of the planting, the resulting flowers sadly do not have the visual knock out effect of a winning Chelsea Flower show garden but of a suburban border.
Victoria Hamilton acts with a steely determination, dismissing the input of others with a sharp and sudden rebuttal which makes us laugh. She is frenetic, edgy, self absorbed, critical and contrary. Illustrating this contrariness for the feelings of others is in her unilaterally disposing of Jamie’s ashes by scattering them in the red garden, which upsets Anna, who felt she should have first say on his remains. The culmination of Anna’s disappointment is in a strange scene in the garden in the thunderstorm and rain where she rubs wet earth into her body between her legs, symbolically reclaiming Jamie as her own. Audrey has more family schism to cope with when Zara and Katherine, despite their age difference of 30 years, embark on a Lesbian sexual relationship. Anna’s later pregnancy brings more issues to the fore.
Early on Audrey has hosted a murder mystery evening where guests are dressed in clothes from the 1920s which Anna comments on saying, “They can’t wait to dress up as masters and servants.” Katherine suggests that Audrey’s life has no poor people in it. Audrey’s ideas on recreating Weatherbury’s garden designs bring her into conflict with the local community and she refuses permission for them to hold their annual summer festival on her land as has been the tradition. We see how she alienates herself from those who live locally and those working for her. Paul Walters says to Audrey his wife, “It’s a choice to live in the past.”
The performances are impressive. It is wonderful to see Victoria Hamilton coming into the theatrical promise she showed as Rosalind in As You Like It and her many roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Charlotte Hope is one to watch, here as Zara, the confused daughter finding security in Katherine Sanchez’s offer of romance. Helen Schlesinger as Katherine is an outsider, someone who expresses herself better in print than in person. She has awkwardly put flowers in her hair for Audrey’s birthday celebration, turning up to deliver the cutting news that Zara will not be attending. “You look ridiculous” says Audrey hitting the nail on the head. The spat between Audrey and Katherine outlines Katherine’s resentment and Audrey’s lack of interest in anyone other than herself.
So what is Mike Bartlett’s play saying about the country? Is this a play about land ownership, territory and identity? Is the play linked to the Brexit revolution? What has England become? Is it a country owned by the rich who want to recreate the past with immigrant labour? Will Brexit inevitably see a reduction in the availability of cheap labour? Does Audrey change her mind in the way that the Brexit voters are said to have changed their mind when faced with the actuality of that decision?
Is Albion about loss, the loss of a son, the loss of a lover, the loss of a daughter to a disapproved of lover, the loss of a father for one’s child? The loss of one’s dreams? Or merely the impossibility of those dreams?
Like The Cherry Orchard, the decision appears to be that Albion will be redeveloped as apartments with the gardens dismantled as a whole, but there is a final twist, as Audrey vacillates juggling practicality and desire. I’d welcome the opportunity to see Albion again to study its multifarious themes.
Written by Mike Bartlett
Directed by Rupert Goold
Director: Rupert Goold
Designer: Miriam Buether
Lighting Designer: Neil Austin
Sound Designer: Ben Ormerod
Movement: Rebecca Frecknall
Running Time: Three hours 5 minutes with one interval
Closed at the Almeida on 15th April 2017 but another run with a slightly different cast 1st February to 29th February 2020. Also broadcast on BBC TV
London N1 1TA
Phone: 020 7359 4404
Rail/Tube: The Angel Islington
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the Almeida on 17th October 2017