Almeida Theatre, London
18th November, 2017, matinee
‘This is our little piece of the world, and we’re allowed to do with it exactly as we like.’
The second act of Mike Bartlett’s new play, Albion, is set at a murder mystery summer party. The characters gather in the garden, dressed in 1920s-inspired vintage garb and sipping martinis, all there to have a jolly good time with a select few invited guests in a sprawling country house. They are real and tangible, yet somehow it’s all a work of nostalgic fiction, not quite as true as some would like. This seems to typify the world that Bartlett and director Rupert Goold create in Albion, a sublime and (mostly) subtle new play that took me completely by surprise.
Audrey Walters (Victoria Hamilton) has just moved to the country with the aim of restoring the gardens of a country house back to its former glory and to the magnificence she remembers when she visited them as a kid. She’s brought in tow her second husband and her daughter, Zara, recently graduated and trying to break into the publishing world in London. Audrey’s son James died two years previously in battle and her relationship with her would-be daughter-in-law Anna is civil at best. Also in the mix is her old best friend (although they hardly see and know each other) Katherine Sanchez, a famous novelist who begins a relationship with Zara. Not long after moving in, we hear that Audrey has scattered James’ ashes in the garden (named the Red Garden as it was made in honour of all those who died in WWI) without discussing it with Anna. The play has a strong narrative, beneath which is an analysis of the shifting and divisive nature of contemporary Britain. It seems glib to call the garden and Audrey’s preservation of it a microcosm for the UK and its current political tensions because it’s shrewder than that. There’s an undercurrent of grief that drives Audrey with which I sympathised.
Having quickly flicked through the text, the dialogue doesn’t appear to be as sparse as other Bartlett plays such as My Child and Bull where, in the latter of which especially, every word serves a purpose and the stage directions are stripped to a minimum. In Albion, the dialogue seems fuller, characters are given time to develop (the play’s running time is over 3 hours), and Goold’s production is teeming with life, all of which creates a meaty drama with a rich cast of characters superbly played by the whole cast. Hamilton, for example, makes some extraordinary performance choices as Audrey. She is a designer and owner of a boutique range in London. She is independent, successful and wealthy but, above all else and for all the flaws that come with it, she is strong-willed. She has a strong focus and doesn’t sentimentalise outside of that; like in her company she likes the transaction of money for services, preferring the more business-minded cleaner Krystyna to the elderly Cheryl. At times, Hamilton is constantly moving about the lawn in purposeful strides; clapping her hands to dismiss something or someone that she is too busy to be involving herself with; being sarcastic but with enough of an air of politeness that she gets away with it. She plays the role of host and matriarch perfectly. Yet she is also hugely in denial. Her aim is unrealistic. Restoring the gardens will be expensive and the climate is different now to what it was when Weatherbury designed it in the 1920s, so the flowers that may have been there might not be possible to grow now. It is also solely her dream; her daughter and husband don’t want to be there. At other times, Hamilton is frozen with anguish like when she sees James and yet can’t quite look at him.
Bartlett really puts the effort in with all of his characters. If they do ever feel excessive to the main action, it’s because Audrey overpowers them all. Helen Schlesinger beautifully plays Katherine. In the third act, the two of them row over not being there for each other, and Katherine perfectly articulates that she’s just been a supporting role in Audrey’s story. Yet the cast have invested so much into their characters that they all feel real. From the hapless young neighbour with an ambition for short story writing and a crush on Zara, to the elderly couple who need the money by pottering around the house sometimes to Audrey’s dismay, to the Polish cleaner. I felt that I cared for them all. Goold gets the best performances out of the cast but he also brings his characteristic panache to the play, no more so than at the end of the second act when Anna is enraptured by the need to feel close to James again. As she reveals to Audrey that she is pregnant with James’ son (they had his sperm frozen), contemporary music blasts into the theatre, rain comes hammering down and Neil Austin’s lighting shines through the tree that dominates the back of Miriam Buether’s stunning English garden design. Yet on the other end of the scale, Goold can orchestrate an equal theatrical delight through a moment of pause when the birdsong stops during Audrey’s paean to her garden: ‘Never still, never ending, always in flux’.
On a personal note, I really connected with Zara’s and Gabriel’s positions in the play. Not sure what to study, how to pursue their career ambitions and feeling like they are working against the tide, their story lines reflect how well drawn Albion’s characters are.
For most of the play, the Brexit parallels are played to an effective minimum. You occasionally can see Audrey morph into a Brexit negotiator, delivering Churchillian speeches about how ‘we’ll find a solution. We need optimism. Fighting talk. More hours. Harder work. That’s the way forward. Spirit!’ Frustratingly, the play’s control is slightly dashed at the end when Matthew (the gardener and only other one who really cared for the garden but who is now in the early stages of dementia) tells Audrey that she must look after an impeccable rose that survived the war. As the lights go down on her cradling it like a baby, I felt that the pudding had been over-egged. Yet for the most part, Albion sees writing, direction and performances come together to create a striking, elegiac and spectral vision of an England gripping onto something that perhaps only existed in works of fiction.
Albion plays at the Almeida until 24th November, 2017.
|Victoria Hamilton in Mike Bartlett's Albion. Photo: Marc Brenner|